Credit: Jane C. Charlton (Penn State) et al., HST, ESA, NASA
Jun 10, 2005
Only in the rarest instances has a single picture altered the direction of a scientific discipline. But in the case of the galaxy NGC 7319 and the "misplaced" quasar in front of it, the message is inescapable.
Today we return to an image we have seen before. On October 1, 2004, our Picture of the Day included a high-resolution photograph of the nearby galaxy NGC 7319, taken by the Hubble Telescope. Seen in front of the dense galactic core was a quasar. Prevailing ideology did not permit a quasar to occupy that position, and its presence threatened to shatter one of the most cherished themes of mainstream astronomy: the Big Bang.
For those who wonder what all the commotion was about, we offer this brief refresher.
The rationale for the Big Bang rests substantially on an interpretation of a well-known phenomenon called “redshift”. The term refers to the shift of light from distant galaxies toward red on the light spectrum.
Many years ago, astronomers decided that redshifted objects must be moving away from the observer, stretching out their lightwaves. This “Doppler interpretation” of redshift enabled astronomers, based on the degree of redshift, to calculate both the distances and velocities of the objects. From these calculations, certain conclusions were inescapable. If all redshifted objects are moving farther away, the universe must be expanding. If the universe is expanding, the expansion must have had a starting point—an unimaginable explosion producing a universe of galaxies receding in every direction from the observer.
The Hubble Space Telescope “Key Project” has recently placed this event 13.7 billion years ago.
The envisioned universe was not always so large. A sudden leap in its official size occurred with the discovery of quasars, the most "redshifted" objects in the heavens. These objects are so strongly shifted towards the red that the astronomers' scale put them outside the previously imagined boundaries. And being so far away, they must be vastly more luminous than any objects in existence today.
These conclusions were, by the astronomers' own admissions, inescapable. And they became the foundation for modern cosmology—the so-called “Queen of the Sciences”.
There were dissenters, however. Astronomer Halton Arp, the leading authority on peculiar galaxies, presented evidence that quasars are not extraordinarily bright objects at the outer edges of the universe. They are physically and energetically connected to the closest galaxies. Arp claimed that the universe is not expanding and there never was a Big Bang. For his dissent, he lost his telescope time and had to move to Germany to continue his work.
Yet as we gained a better picture of remote space, evidence against the Big Bang continued to accumulate. When distant galaxies were plotted according to their redshift-determined distances, they appeared to be arranged in lines that pointed at Earth—the so-called “Fingers of God”. Galaxies with greatly different redshifts but otherwise having similar forms increased tremendously in size with increasing redshift. And almost every nearby active galaxy was discovered to have a greater-than-average number of quasars nearby.
Then came the Hubble photograph (above right), taken on October 3, 2003. The picture showed a galaxy (NGC 7319) known for its dense clouds that obstruct all objects behind its core. In front of the galaxy's core is a strongly redshifted quasar. In fact, under the prevailing assumptions, the redshift of the quasar would put it more than 90 times farther away from us than the big galaxy behind it.
Also, as noted in our earlier Picture of the Day, Arp and his colleagues show that the quasar is interacting energetically with the material in front of the galaxy. The paper by Arp, et al., that announced the discovery may be viewed at: http://arxiv.org/abs/astro-ph/0409215
Hence, the standard suppositions about redshift do not work: The quasar’s redshift cannot be the effect of a “velocity of recession” or an “expansion of the universe”—it is just an intrinsic, and yet unexplained, quality of the quasar.
One might have expected alarm bells to go off within the astronomical community, since much of its funding rests on the assumed credibility of its theoretical starting point. But the responses have ranged from nonchalance to outright denial. Leading scientific institutions still issue news releases telling us that all is well in modern cosmology. One scientific publication after another continues to discuss the Big Bang as if it were an established fact.
Public relations in the sciences did not always work this way. A quarter-century ago, when America’s favorite astronomer, Carl Sagan, published his book, Cosmos, he addressed the redshift question:
"There is nevertheless a nagging suspicion among some astronomers, that all may not be right with the deduction, from the redshift of galaxies via the Doppler effect, that the universe is expanding. The astronomer Halton Arp has found enigmatic and disturbing cases where a galaxy and a quasar, or a pair of galaxies, that are in apparent physical association have very different redshifts...."
Sagan's acknowledgment here showed a candor rarely found in standard treatments of astronomy today. He continued, "If Arp is right, the exotic mechanisms proposed to explain the energy source of distant quasars—supernova chain reactions, supermassive black holes and the like —would prove unnecessary. Quasars need not then be very distant. But some other exotic mechanism will be required to explain the redshift. In either case, something very strange is going on in the depths of space."
It is astonishing to realize that, for a quarter century after Sagan wrote these words, an ideological interpretation became increasingly entrenched in astronomy, even in the face of growing evidence to the contrary.
Critics point to the demands of funding as the primary culprit. Recently, dozens of top scientists, including Halton Arp, Eric J. Lerner, and Michael Ibison authored an open letter to the scientific community, arguing that the dominance of big bang theory "rests more on funding decision than on the scientific method." They wrote: "Today, virtually all financial and experimental resources in cosmology are devoted to big bang studies. Funding comes from only a few sources, and all the peer-review committees that control them are dominated by supporters of the big bang. As a result, the dominance of the big bang within the field has become self-sustaining, irrespective of the scientific validity of the theory.
"Giving support only to projects within the big bang framework undermines a fundamental element of the scientific method—the constant testing of theory against observation. Such a restriction makes unbiased discussion and research impossible...."
This image of a high-redshift quasar in front of an opaque low-redshift galaxy marks a crossroads in modern astronomy. If ideology prevails, astronomy as a science will die; if funding and journals are opened to empirical testing and questioning of assumptions, the big bang will die. For the time being, science must wait on the sidelines while the game of power politics plays itself out.
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