So a little telescope called Hubble takes a picture of a galaxy, a really distant galaxy over 10 billion lightyears away. Odd, it looks like this galaxy has gotten it’s act together and become a spiral galaxy, a lot earlier than we thought proper spiral galaxies would form. What do you do? Get some time on a bigger telescope and get some more data… Using Keck the OSIRIS spectrograph astronomers show that this is indeed a proper spiral galaxy, 10.7 billion light years away, which means 10.7 billion years in the past. The universe has just served up another surprise for astronomers, this is the sort of stuff we love.
Better yet, Keck gets a bit of good press for the discovery.
Along with the sensible headlines there are those that play up the “This can’t be” angle of the discovery. For the most part the articles are fairly good, it is just the headlines that seem a little off, something to blame on the editors who write the headlines…
Headlines are always an issue in science reporting. Written by editors with a tendency to the excessive and sensational. Editors who often have little understanding of the science. We have seen what that can lead to, something that has been pleasantly rare with this latest discovery.
Is this the “first” spiral? We have no way of knowing. I have found no such quote from the astronomers involved with the discovery. The reason we study the early universe is that we do not know. This discovery shows that there could be others, perhaps even older.
There are other headlines, predictable headlines from the usual suspects. Every time science turns up some surprise, something that does not fit a simplistic view of the universe, those with an ideological agenda attempt to use the discovery to push their views… “Look at this! It disproves everything!!”, ” The scientists have it all wrong!!” Quite predictable…
And of course, scientists will need to look for other exceptions to the rule. If an inexplicable and significant number of premature spirals are found, then the Big Bang theory will need to be rewritten, or disposed of altogether, no matter how beloved it is today. After all, it is just a theory.
Yes, again you see the “It is Just a Theory” gambit, the creationists favorite canard. All a discovery like this proves is that the universe is a complex and fascinating place and that we still have much to learn.
“BX442 represents a link between early galaxies that are much more turbulent than the rotating spiral galaxies that we see around us. Indeed, this galaxy may highlight the importance of merger interactions at any cosmic epoch in creating grand design spiral structure.” – Alice Shapely of UCLA, co-discoverer of BX442