When Hype Distorts News of Scientific Discoveries

IT'S easy to get excited about astronomy. The science deals in superlatives - stellar explosions, echoes of primordial creation. But it also lends itself to hype that can distort news of major discoveries.

That's why cosmologists are having second thoughts about an announcement that electrified news media around the world last April.

A scientific team working with the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite reported finding the earliest traces of the underlying structure that produced the distribution of matter we now see in the universe. These showed up as minute temperature differences in the "fossil" radiation that permeates the cosmos as a relic of the universe's birth.

This was indeed a major finding. But some scientists let their enthusiasm color their judgment when talking about it publicly. Some called it the greatest astronomical discovery of the century, ignoring the fact that the earlier discovery of the background radiation itself had a better claim to the title. Some even suggested religious implications. A widely used quote came from George Smoot of the University of California, Berkeley, principal investigator on the COBE team. He told the April 23 press conf erence that "if you're religious, it's like seeing God."

With that kind of hype coming from within the scientific community, you can't blame the news media for playing up the story. They reported that astronomers at last had "proof" that the universe originated in a so-called Big Bang explosion of energy and space-time. Some stories even spoke of discerning "the mind of God" in new evidence of primordial "creation."

This all seems silly now. As the journal Science noted in reporting a recent conference assessing the COBE findings, theories of cosmic evolution are proliferating as cosmologists wrestle with the new data. Although those data are consistent with the Big Bang, they don't constitute long-awaited proof that this actually happened. As University of California, Berkeley, cosmologist Marc Davis told the conference, "The Big Bang didn't need this proof." It already rests solidly on other evidence, especially o n the existence of the background radiation.

None of this diminishes the importance of what Dr. Smoot and his colleagues have done. By painstaking analysis, they have found minute temperature variations in the background radiation. Much of the pattern they trace is spurious. It represents instrument noise. But there also seem to be genuine irregularities - echoes of primordial ripples in space-time - around which the universe has structured itself.

Scientists have very few observed cosmological facts to work with. They already knew that the observed expansion of the universe, the existence of the fossil radiation, and the relative abundance of light elements are in line with predictions of Big Bang theory. They knew that today galaxies cluster around the edges of large voids, giving the universe a fish-net structure. Now they also know that the fossil radiation seems to show the same large-scale structure etched in terms of regions of temperatures a mere hundred-thousandth of a degree warmer than the surroundings.

Adding that fact to the cosmologists' collection is no mean achievement. It doesn't need to be hyped. And it has nothing to do with religion.

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