A Lesson in Good Science from Bad Astronomy

Roundism is only a theory

Phil Plait posted an excellent article today: “Ten Things You Don’t Know About the Sun”. It’s worth reading on its own, but it also gives us a great example of how real science works.

For item number six, Phil tells us that “[the sun] solved a major problem in physics… and then created another one.”

The physics involved made a prediction: the Sun should be emitting neutrinos, energetic subatomic particles that are a severe pain in the neck to detect. The first solar neutrinos were detected in the 1960s, which was very cool. But there was a problem: only 1/3 of the predicted neutrinos were found.

This was no small thing; the very nature of what we understood about quantum mechanics and particle physics was threatened by this finding! The missing neutrino problem, as it was called, was considered one of the most outstanding mysteries in astronomy at the time.

Oh no!! Neutrinoism is wrong! Intelligent Fusion must therefore be correct!! An Intelligent Fusionaut (who isn’t God!) is squeezing the hydrogens together to make helium!

Finally, though, the problem was solved. Through real science. Duh. The detectors astronomers had used to look for neutrinos were only sensitive to one kind of neutrino, the kind the Sun emitted. There are actually three kinds, so if, somehow, neutrinos could change their type as they flew from the Sun to here we’d only expect to see 1/3 the predicted number (2/3 would change to the kind we couldn’t detect). If that were true, then statistically seeing 1/3 the total would make sense.

That’s just a theory! Only micro-neutrinos have ever been detected! No one has ever seen macro-neutrinos, so they must not be real! And besides, neutrinoism doesn’t explain the origin of life or how the moon stays in orbit or how socks disappear from the dryer!

But then the Canadian Sudbury Neutrino Observatory came online…, one that could measure the effects of all three neutrino flavors. When the results were combined and extrapolated, it was seen that the number of neutrinos coming from the Sun was just as predicted. Yay!

OK! OK! OK! Forget about Intelligent Fusion! It’s all about academic freedom! Neutrino skeptics are being discriminated against! Neutrino doubters are having their careers destroyed! We have a list of 700 hot dog vendors who doubt Neutrinoism! Teach the controversy!

However, there remained a problem: the only way neutrinos can change their flavor is if they have mass. Only a tiny amount, but it’s still some, and The Standard Model (yes, capitalize it when you use it!) of particle physics said they shouldn’t have any mass at all. The Standard Model is, therefore, wrong.

Aha! Big Science admits that Neutrinoism is wrong! You’d better stop quoting now, while we’re ahead!

Or more properly, incomplete.


The SM does pretty well for lots of other particles, but neutrinos are still something of a mystery; they’re still difficult to detect and difficult to study.

That’s because they’re irreducibly massive! They couldn’t have formed all by themselves! Neutrinos are like little car engines, and you can’t have a car without a salesman! And… and… and…

13 Responses to “A Lesson in Good Science from Bad Astronomy”

  1. gen Says:

    And besides, neutrinoism doesn’t explain the origin of life or how the moon stays in orbit or how socks disappear from the dryer!

    of course it doesn’t… everybody knows it’s the intelligent fusionaut who fuses the socks into lint

  2. Parrotlover77 Says:

    I love this article. This really shows how silly the ID argument is.

  3. silvioricardoc Says:

    Priceless 😉

  4. Jeff Eyges Says:

    Really well done, Ron!

  5. OtherRob Says:

    We have a list of 700 hot dog vendors who doubt Neutrinoism!


    I guess that Neutrinoism just doesn’t cut the mustard with them.

    I’m sorry. I’m so sorry….

  6. griffon8 Says:

    As big a fan of puns as I am…

    You should be.

  7. ericsan Says:

    Somewhat relevant to this thread, I just read on Slashdot that a bill was introduced in Oklahoma congress to stop Dawkins from speaking at the University of Oklahoma.

    From the bill: ‘… the University of Oklahoma … has invited as a public speaker on campus, Richard Dawkins of Oxford University, whose published opinions, as represented in his 2006 book “The God Delusion,” and public statements on the theory of evolution demonstrate an intolerance for cultural diversity and diversity of thinking and are views that are not shared and are not representative of the thinking of a majority of the citizens of Oklahoma …’

    So, according to Okie lawmakers, science is now determined by the popular vote. Are they born idiots or do they take special medication? Scary.

  8. Jeff Eyges Says:

    PZ has a post about it.

  9. Parrotlover77 Says:

    Legislating science standards is bad, but I see a much more cut and dry constitutional problem here. They are attempting to stifle free speech! I mean this is the core of the first amendment.

    Although I’m a big free speech advocate, I can understand arguments against certain types of speech (porn for example). I may completely disagree, but I can see some logic in the point. This, on the other hand, is precisely the type of speech the framers had in mind when drafting the first amendment!!

  10. Ron Britton Says:

    The legislature is trying to suppress academic freedom. Where’s Kevin Wirth when you need him? Oh, that’s right! He doesn’t support real academic freedom!

  11. Lindsay Says:

    Oh, that reminds me of when Bill Ayers was scheduled to speak at the University of Nebraska. The Dean cancelled the event due to “death threats” but I think it was a poor excuse for “Republican Uproar.” However, Rick Santorum was still allowed to speak at the University a few months later. At least a few Nebraskans had the good sense to see through Santorum…I believe it was then Sen. Bob Kerrey who said “Santorum is Latin for asshole.”

  12. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    The Oklahoma senate passed a resolution condemning the Dawkins visit. There was never an attempt to pass legislation against the visit. Not good behavior but not as bad as described by some of the commentators above.

  13. Parrotlover77 Says:

    Just remember, Oklahomans, the time it took to draft that resolution, debate that resolution, and pass that resolution was ON YOUR DIME. Meanwhile, your economy is still going to shit.