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ARP 261. Credit ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT), Paranal Observatory.



A Lamentation for Arp 261
Mar 20, 2009

ESO has released another image of another instance of standard-theory hermeneutics. The several space bureaucracies have become adept at discovering peculiar celestial objects that send them back to the drawing board only to draw the same idea again.

The press release begins with a spark of curiosity: “Sometimes objects in the sky that appear strange, or different from normal, have a story to tell and prove scientifically very rewarding. This was the idea behind Halton Arp’s catalogue of Peculiar Galaxies that appeared in the 1960s.”

The press release neglects to mention that one reward of Arp’s catalog was the questioning of the expanding universe hypothesis—a challenge that was suppressed by the political prohibition of questioning established answers.

The press release remarks that “...the image proves to contain several surprises,” but this soon proves to be only a rhetorical remark: The next paragraph sweeps the surprise into the standard bin of “colliding galaxies” before anyone’s pulse can get in a faster beat. Curiosity is soothed back into unquestioning somnolence by parroting approved answers. That makes for a short press release, so the piece is filled out with repetitions of standard repetitiousness about supernovae and stars.

What if curiosity were not patronized into conformity? What if the questions were encouraged to explore the surprises in defiance of the answers who seek to constrain vision with their tunnels of acceptability? What else could Arp 261 be?

Instead of “clouds of gas and dust” that “crash into each other,” there could be cells of plasma driving electromagnetic forces throughout the system. Gravitational forces and gas phenomena could be insignificant. Instead of colliding galaxies, Arp 261 could be a single barred spiral galaxy disrupted by a surge in its galactic circuit.

The “bright new clusters of very hot stars” could be high-current discharges along spiral-arm Birkeland cables. The loop of bright clusters at the center of the image in the upper arm contains filaments that seem to converge. If the clusters were moved to the point of convergence, they would make the arm a continuous spiral: Perhaps the loop is the result of a double layer that exploded in the surging current.

Modern astronomers busy themselves applying accepted theories to new observations in deliberate disregard for the unexpected. They may as well reprint previous papers, close the telescopes, and save the taxpayers’ pennies. They’ve ceased looking for new ideas and have become technicians of the rote.

Astronomy has become a science of answers, of “secure knowledge,” of ritual. It can be contained on a hard drive. It’s a science for robots or parrots. Answers are victories that soon become dead leaves of reminiscence, dry pages of textbooks and scriptures.

A science for humans is a science of questions, of learning, of possibilities and opportunities. Its aim is not to fold the unquestioned into the envelope of the given but to learn new words and to write new narratives. Arp 261 is part of a lexicon that for too long has been neglected.

Mel Acheson



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