Black Holes, Gravity Waves, and Unending Gaps

First, two news stories.

First up: “Black hole is 30 times bigger than expected” By Amanda Barnett, CNN, Updated 8:04 PM ET, Sat September 26, 2015

“This shouldn’t be possible. Researchers say they’ve detected a supermassive black hole at the center of a newly found galaxy that’s far bigger than current theories allow.” As the title indicates, specifically it’s about 30 times larger than a galaxy the size of the one it’s in should be able to form. Wow.  Not much else to say about it; if you want the details, click on the title to go to the article. As to how this surprise came about, the scientists can only guess: “…it could be that the black hole just grew much faster than the galaxy surrounding it, or maybe the galaxy’s growth was prematurely stopped.” Why or how the black hole would or could grow fast, or what would or could stop the galaxy’s growth, they don’t say.

Next: “‘All quiet on the cosmic front’: Was Einstein’s theory wrong?” a Christian Science Monitor online “Science: First look” article by Michael Holtz, Staff writer, September 28, 2015.  Einstein’s theories of relativity have been confirmed very strongly with a number of tests, but one aspect of his theory of general relativity continues to defy confirmation in any way: things with mass that move back and forth should produce gravity waves.

The gravity of a small object is going to be far too weak to detect, so waving a pencil, jumping up and down, or swinging a wrecking ball isn’t going to come close to producing detectable gravity waves. Gravity is so weak, it would take something incredibly massive, moving back and forth at a great rate, for the gravitational disturbances in space-time to be detected. Fortunately, out in space there are examples of just what we need. So far, however, efforts to find signs of gravity waves have drawn a complete blank.

The short story is: “Using the high-precision Parkes telescope, Dr. Shannon and a team of scientists have tried for more than a decade to detect the most elusive element of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity: gravitational waves.”

What could possibly be massive enough to create gravity waves we can detect by observing something with a telescope? A black hole. As you may know, a black hole is believed to form when a very large star reaches the end of the elements it can mush together in atomic fusion reactions, and the gravity pulls everything in until the intensity becomes so great even light that comes too close gets pulled in and can never escape. But how do you move something that massive? With another one, of course: “Shannon and his team of researchers focused their attention on pairs of black holes circling around each other at the center of galaxies. Their theory is that as the black holes merge, they send ripples through space and time.”

And how do you detect those ripples? With something almost as dense as a black hole: a neutron star, specifically a pulsar. (You may want to skip to the next paragraph if you know what that is.) If a star doesn’t have enough mass to become a black hole, it may still have enough that all the protons and electrons in the atoms get smashed together to form neutrons. As the spinning star collapses, it spins faster and faster, like a skater pulling in her arms.  As interstellar dust or material from a nearby star gets pulled toward the neutron star, it can be caught in the whirling magnetic field and shot out in an intense stream from the poles. It produces a very bright light, and as the poles spin around the axis of rotation, if the light shines toward Earth at some point, it appears to blink on and off very rapidly, and so it is called a pulsar (short for “pulsing star”) .

Pulsars are so fast and so steady (it would take a lot to disturb something as massive as a neutron star) that even a small change or wavering in the series of blinks should be detected. Gravity waves wouldn’t directly disturb the pulsar itself, but the ripples in space-time would change the appearance of the stream of flashes. As the article says, “Theoretical work has suggested that the Parkes telescope should be sensitive enough to detect the waves.” But after 11 years, the metaphorical summation was: ” ‘We heard nothing. Not even a whimper,’ said Shannon…”

So, as often happens in science, it’s a case of going back to the ol’ drawing board.  ” ‘So what it means is that the theorists – including me – need to come up with better models,’ Mr. Ravi [“Vikram Ravi, a postdoctoral fellow at the California Institute of Technology and member of the research team”] told ‘They need to think a bit harder about what the gravitational wave signal may actually look like.’ ”

Perhaps the researchers are over-reaching if they hope that gravity waves “could help look back into the very beginning of the universe.” We know what things far out in space look like through our telescopes and with our radio telescopes and other detectors, but what can we really know about what’s going on so far away, or  back in time?

A lot of people seem to be of two minds about science. Officially and formally they will state that nothing is really certain in science, it is all provisional and subject to change as new data comes in. They know the old saying that every time science produces a new answer, it opens up new questions. They know that science only deals with what is natural, and so cannot say anything about God or other supernatural beings, or supernatural events such as miracles. On the other hand, some people seem to think that science is the only way to really know anything. They think that whatever most scientists say is so, must be so. They argue that science has proven that everything in the universe has always happened perfectly naturally, or it will soon prove it. Even some people who believe in God warn against saying that God is responsible for something, because to do so is a “God of the gaps argument” and science is closing the gaps and may close that one, too.

The founders of science understood that, even when they found natural causes for things, God could be working “behind the scenes” in ways that we can never detect. They also accepted that science was for studying what is happening in the world today, not figuring out how it all began or even what happened long ago. Certainly we can use science as an aid in guessing what happened in the recent past concerning ordinary events, but it is philosophically audacious to suppose that we can safely assume that the universe or even Earth has never experienced exceptions to the laws of nature. Nor should we be overly confident in our ability to reason out what happened in the distant past based on scientific data. For all our efforts to ascertain the validity of such conclusions, we simply can never be sure that we can safely draw conclusions much beyond the simple facts.

There’s no reason to see demons or fairies at work in all sorts of ways, nor make up stories of God or the devil creating things to test us, but if the Bible says plainly that God created light directly, supernaturally, before the sun and stars, we should at least acknowledge that science may be limited in its ability to tell us how everything got here. Mysteries such as these two here may yet have simple, ordinary solutions, but it is still foolish to think that we can use science to say the world wasn’t supernaturally created. There is just no way to tell if we really know as much as we think we do.

It was fairly recently that the majority of astrophysicists decided that data (the speeds of stars in galaxies, for example) indicate there’s something out there that’s contributing far more mass than the stars and dust that we can see (so it is called Dark Matter), and even more recently observations indicating the universe is expanding faster than it did in the past led to the conclusion that some form of “Dark Energy” makes up most of what exists. While there is other observational evidence for Dark Matter (some cases of gravitational lensing), a lot of the apparent need for it would go away if… the universe is only thousands of years old, not billions. Of course, the universe could be young AND there could be all that Dark Matter out there, but as long as it remains a mystery, the belief that the universe is billions of years old has a sword of Damocles over it. More importantly, the apparent discovery that most of the universe is made of stuff we didn’t know about and still don’t know much about, along with ongoing discoveries of new mysteries and surprises, is a strong warning to those who think too highly of what we think we know “scientifically.”