Why Does Science Keep Changing Its Mind?
An excellent entry has been posted at NPR's "sciency blog". "The Triceratops Panic: Why Does Science Keep Changing Its Mind?" is a look at how science changes with the time and how we react to these changes. The basic notion can be applied to epsilon Aurigae too.
It's been almost 200 years since the first publication that described the eclipse. And only just now, thanks largely to Brian and Dr. Bob's work, are we getting an idea of what is really happening. And their work would never have been possible without the support for citizen scientists monitoring the star over time and giving them the data needed to propose a model, which they later tested with interferometry.
Read Brian's literature reviews on the history of epsilon Aurigae and you'll see how our theories changed over time. Most of these changes were due to new data acquired thanks to advances in technology. For example, spectrographs provided the first clue that the star was a supergiant. Later, better photometric observations in the 1950's gave rise to the concept of a companion star within a disk. The 1981-83 photometry led to a theory of a Saturnian ring-like structure around epsilon Aurigae. Observations in this current campaign don't support that theory. So it has to be discarded. That's science.
So where is all the screaming? Since epsilon Aurigae is not taught in school or mentioned in mass media, no one has a personal connection to it. I agree with everything in Robert Krulwich's blog, which is one of the best I've read this year on any topic - science or not (my personal blog reading tends to focus on sports, science and technology - I used to do politics too but gave it up in favor of staying sane). But I think there is something to add about why people are so attached to their scientific knowledge. It's not only because they know so little of it, as he attests, but also because they attribute what they know to specific memories in life.
Science is a little like music in that way. One of the great things about music is how hearing a favorite tune can bring back memories of the first time you heard it (in some people it can be strong enough to evoke memories of smell, taste, etc.). For example, many people associate their knowledge of Pluto as a planet with their first reading of books about the solar system. Or a favorite poster that hung in their wall or classroom. The same goes for the dinosaurs in Krulwich's blog.
Me, I have a strong memory of reading Astronomy magazine on our couch as my mother read her own books on science. In particular, I remember drooling over the Meade LX-series telescopes in the ads. Decades later, I now know that Meade has a terrible reputation for quality in the amateur community. I have owned two LX-200's in the last decade and have mixed feelings about the quality. But I still have an overall positive feeling towards them and get emotional when they are trashed online because I still remember how sexy they looked in those advertisements. Effective marketing can cast a long shadow.
So what are some scientific ideas/concepts/theories that you hated to let go over the years?