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Starts With A Bang

The 10 most overhyped physics and astronomy claims from 2023

Misinformation was extremely popular in 2023, as bad science often made global headlines. Learn the truth behind these 10 dubious stories.
This description features an image of a black hole and an image of a spiral galaxy, breaking the barriers of 10 biggest physics astronomy lies.
Size comparison of the two black holes imaged by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) Collaboration: M87*, at the heart of the galaxy Messier 87, and Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*), at the center of the Milky Way. Although Messier 87's black hole is easier to image because of the slow time variation, the one around the center of the Milky Way is the largest as viewed from Earth. In 2023, a study suggested that black hole interiors cause dark energy, but even that claim couldn't crack 2023's top 10 for most egregious untruths.
Credit: EHT collaboration/ Big Think
Key Takeaways
  • While there have been huge scientific advances in a wide variety of aspects of physics and astronomy, there have also been wild headlines that do not reflect at all what's true in this Universe.
  • No, we haven't found a room-temperature superconductor, overturned the expanding Universe or Big Bang, discovered that the cosmos is twice as old as we thought, or discovered alien technology on the seafloor.
  • There has been a lot of fiction permeating science news this year, and the frustrating thing is that these untrue stories are posing as actual facts. Here are 10 lies you may want to learn the actual truth behind.

Science, as an enterprise, is a work in progress.

Fomalhaut JWST annotated
The structure of the Fomalhaut stellar system is revealed for the first time in this annotated JWST image. A central inner disk, followed by a (likely planet-caused) gap, an intermediate belt, more planets (and another gap), and finally a Kuiper belt analog, complete with what’s been dubbed the “great dust cloud” newly forming inside, are all revealed.
Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, A. Gáspár (University of Arizona) et al., Nature Astronomy, 2023

And sometimes, dubious work on its frontiers masquerades as revolutionary truths.

Although there are magnified, ultra-distant, very red and even infrared galaxies like the ones identified here in the Hubble eXtreme Deep Field, many of these candidate galaxies have turned out to be either intrinsically red and/or closer interlopers, not the ultra-distant objects we hoped they were. Without spectroscopic confirmation, fooling ourselves as to an object’s cosmic distance is an unfortunate, but commonplace occurrence.
Credit: NASA, ESA, R. Bouwens and G. Illingsworth (UC, Santa Cruz)

Here are 10 cases where bad science might have fooled you in 2023.

population iii stars
The very first stars to form in the Universe were different than the stars today: metal-free, extremely massive, and destined for a supernova surrounded by a cocoon of gas. There was a time, prior to the formation of stars where only clumps of matter, unable to cool and collapse, remained in large, diffuse clouds. It is possible that clouds that grow slowly enough may even persist to very late cosmic times.
Credit: NAOJ

10.) Astronomers found the Universe’s first stars.

galaxy spectrum He O
The spectrum of galaxy RXJ2129-z8HeII, showing the signature of ionized helium, some hydrogen lines, and the very strong doubly-ionized oxygen line at 500.8 nanometers. This is an extremely metal-rich environment for so early in the Universe; any hint of Population III stars is extremely speculative.
Credit: X. Wang et al., submitted to Nature, 2022; arXiv:2212.04476

Truth: they’re definitely out there, but remain undiscovered so far.

lensing magnification curves dark matter wave
At left, a lensing magnification curve is shown for a standard, boring, oversimplified, smooth dark matter profile. At right, three different profiles are shown if one replaces that assumption with various realizations of wave-like dark matter. But is the data good enough to support one picture over the other?
Credit: A. Amruth et al., Nature Astronomy, 2023

9.) Dark matter is wave-like in nature.

lensing geometry standard wave dark matter
The whole basis of the gravitational lensing study that claims to favor wave-like dark matter is encapsulated in this diagram. The authors simply model the normal and dark matter as shown, show the standard lensing predictions with crosses, and the actual observations with circles. Where the crosses and circles don’t overlap, they claim it disfavors particle-like dark matter. With 75 realizations of possible wave-like dark matter solutions shown (color-coded points), they assert that these points fit the data much better. Is this convincing?
Credit: A. Amruth et al., Nature Astronomy, 2023

Truth: one poorly-observed system is no basis for such sweeping conclusions.

jwst background galaxies
This extremely rich region of space was captured while viewing Stephan’s Quintet with JWST’s NIRCam instrument. Many of these galaxies are clustered together in real space, while others are simply serendipitous alignments along the same line-of-sight that appear to be clustered, but are actually not bound to one another. The deepest galaxies revealed by JWST may yet still be entirely explicable within modern cosmology’s consensus picture.
Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

8.) JWST’s distant galaxies disprove the Big Bang.

likelihood of early galaxies vs age for jwst
The three simulated regions highlighted earlier, using the Renaissance suite, lead to predictions for how massive galaxies should be in those three regions (orange, blue, and green lines). The 5 earliest galaxies revealed so far with JWST, with error bars shown, have about a probability of “1” of occurring within the observed regions. If they were truly rare, they’d be brighter and more massive, as shown by the ~10^-3 and ~10^-6 likelihood curves.
Credit: J. McCaffrey et al., Open Journal of Astrophysics (submitted), 2023

Truth: deviations from expectations are slight, and remain consistent with modern cosmology.

big bang mirage
Conventionally, the standard model of cosmology asserts that our Universe began with a Big Bang, and has been expanding and cooling ever since. A new study raises the possibility that this may all be a mirage, but how well does the idea hold up under scrutiny?
Credit: geralt/pixabay

7.) The expanding Universe is a mirage.

hydrogen spin flip
When a hydrogen atom forms, it has equal probability of having the electron’s and proton’s spins be aligned and anti-aligned. If they’re anti-aligned, no further transitions will occur, but if they’re aligned, they can quantum tunnel into that lower energy state, emitting a photon of a very specific wavelength (21 cm) on very specific, and rather long, timescales. The precision of this transition has been measured to better than 1-part-in-a-trillion, and has not varied over the many decades it’s been known. It is the first light emitted in the Universe after the formation of neutral atoms: even before the formation of the first stars, but also thereafter: whenever new stars are formed, ultraviolet emission ionizes hydrogen atoms, creating this signature once again when those atoms spontaneously re-form.
Credit: Tiltec/Wikimedia Commons

Truth: terrestrial laboratory experiments contradict the study’s unphysical assumptions.

age vs cosmology and redshift
The age of the Universe (y-axis) at a given redshift (x-axis) as a function of which model cosmology is chosen. The standard Lambda-CDM model is shown in green dashes, whereas a version that includes tired light is shown in violet dashes and a version that includes both tired light and varying fundamental constants is shown with a solid blue line. It is the blue line that gives an age of the Universe of 26.7 billion years, as opposed to the standard 13.8 billion.
Credit: R. Gupta, MNRAS, 2023

6.) The Universe is actually 26.7 billion years old.

uranium oxide oklo nuclear reactor
From the main mine that humans made in the Oklo region, one of the natural reactors is accessible via an offshoot, as illustrated here. The large uranium deposit present underwent nuclear fission on and off for hundreds of thousands of years some ~1.7 billion years ago. The yellow rock is uranium oxide. Oklo data shows that the fine-structure constant, which depends on the electron charge, the speed of light, and Planck’s constant, changes by less than ~0.3 parts in 10 quadrillion (10^16) per year, eliminating the tired-light plus varying fundamental constant scenario.
Credit: Robert D. Loss (Curtin U.); US Dept. of Energy

Truth: Historical observations rule this alternative out.

superconductor quantum levitation
Where quantum levitation actually occurs, the superconducting material is flux pinned (or quantum locked) in place above the permanent magnet, with its height and orientation fixed. This phenomenon, along with three other key pieces of evidence, has not been, and must be, demonstrated for LK-99 in order for it to pass muster as a bona fide superconductor.
Credit: Pongkaew/Wikimedia Commons

5.) LK-99 is a room-temperature superconductor.

LK-99 conductor not superconductor
This figure, extracted and horizontally stretched from the second of Lee and Kim’s papers on LK-99, clearly shows that the voltage across their sample, below a certain value of applied current, doesn’t drop to zero, but rather drops to a small, positive, non-zero value: evidence that this is behaving as a conductor, not a superconductor.
Credit: S. Lee et al., arXiv preprint server, 2023

Truth: its resistance never drops to zero; it never superconducts.

Earth-like exoplanet
Although the first Earth-sized exoplanet we directly image will potentially have many interesting properties, including continents and oceans, cloud cover, and possibly life, it won’t appear to our instruments as anything more than a single pixel. The current technique for learning about exoplanet atmospheres involves transit spectroscopy, and we must be careful: absorption and emission features of many molecules and compounds can be confounded for one another.
Credit: ESA/Hubble, M. Kornmesser

4.) Exoplanet K2-18b is an inhabited ocean world.

atmosphere spectrum jwst K2-18b
Spectra of K2-18 b, obtained with Webb’s NIRISS (Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph) and NIRSpec (Near-Infrared Spectrograph), display an abundance of methane and carbon dioxide in the exoplanet’s atmosphere, as well as a possible detection of a molecule called dimethyl sulfide (DMS). However, the significance of the data could potentially indicate many other outcomes besides the one pushed by the study’s authors.
Credit: NASA, CSA, ESA, R. Crawford (STScI), J. Olmsted (STScI); Science: N. Madhusudhan (Cambridge University)

Truth: that claim crumbles without dimethyl sulfide, which was never detected.

galaxy quasar hybrid
The quasar-galaxy hybrid GNz7q is seen here as a red dot in the center of the image, reddened because of the expansion of the Universe and its great distance from us. Although it’s been exposed in the GOODS-N field for over 13 years, it was only flagged as an object of interest in 2022, as its spectrum reveals properties of both galaxy and quasar. One of the most distant quasars ever observed, its light appears to be stretched out not only in wavelength, but in time as well.
Credit: NASA, ESA, Garth Illingworth (UC Santa Cruz), Pascal Oesch (UC Santa Cruz, Yale), Rychard Bouwens (LEI), I. Labbe (LEI), Cosmic Dawn Center/Niels Bohr Institute/University of Copenhagen, Denmark

3.) Time ran slower in the cosmic past.

expanding universe
Whenever a galaxy emits light, the light that’s eventually seen by the observer who receives it will have a different set of properties and wavelengths than when that light was first emitted, owing to two properties: the relative motion of the light source to the observer, as well as the expansion of the Universe that occurs between the source and observer. The greater the distance to the galaxy, the greater the observed redshift, and also the greater the amount of observed time dilation, as the signal the observer receives will be “stretched out” over time as well.
Credit: Larry McNish/RASC Calgary Centre

Truth: time’s passage remains unchanged, but cosmic expansion dilates propagating light.

Nasa's nasa spacecraft nasa's nasa spacecraft n.
61 Cygni was the first star to have its parallax measured and published (back in 1838), but also is a difficult case due to its large proper motion. These two images, stacked in red and blue and taken almost exactly one year apart, show this binary star system’s fantastic speed. If you want to measure the parallax of an object to extreme accuracy, you’ll make your two ‘binocular’ measurements simultaneously, to avoid the effect of the star’s motion through the galaxy. Gaia is exceptionally good at characterizing the orbits of nearby stars with small separations from their companion, but faces more challenges with more distant, wider binary systems.
Credit: Lorenzo2/Astrofili forums

2.) Binary stars prove (or disprove) MOND.

albireo yellow blue double star
The star Albireo, recognizable by its position at the base of the “northern cross” within the asterism known as the Summer Triangle, is easily resolvable into two components with a small telescope or binoculars. The brighter yellow star has a temperature of around 4400 K, but the fainter blue star is much hotter, at about 13000 K, with the color difference arising due to the temperature differences among the stars. Albireo is thought to be a wide binary, but even though it’s been known to be composed of two stars for centuries, whether it’s gravitationally bound or not is still sometimes debated.
Credit: Jared Smith/flickr

Truth: this uncertainty-riddled method begets only unreliable conclusions.

Loeb metal spherules
Avi Loeb is already calling these metal spherules “fragments of interstellar meteorite 1,” or IM1 for short. There is no robust evidence indicating that these spherules have an extraterrestrial origin. Instead, substantial evidence now exists that these are Earth-contaminated particles that originated from within our own Solar System.
Credit: Avi Loeb/Medium

1.) We’ve found alien technology on the ocean floor.

metal spherules pollution
The metal spherules imaged here are very similar in appearance and similarly rich in iron content to the spherules recovered by Avi Loeb’s expedition to the ocean floor. But these metals are known to be due to industrial pollutants, and were found in the soils in Shanghai, China.
Credit: Xue-Feng Hu et al., Journal of Applied Geophysics, 2022

Truth: it was industrial pollution, and a charlatan fooling himself.

iron fractionation ratios as found in the 9 spherules recovered by Avi Loeb
Deviations of iron isotopic ratios from terrestrial ratios in nine spherules, reproduced from Figure 12a of Loeb et al. The pink line adjoining them is the terrestrial fractionation line (TFL) on which samples should array if they have a Solar System origin and experienced chemically-driven mass-dependent isotopic fractionation by gain or loss of Fe, for example by vaporization of Fe. All nine spherules are exactly consistent with a Solar System origin.
Credit: Loeb et al., unpublished, 2023; reproduced by S. Desch and A. Jackson, private communication

Always demand overwhelming evidence.

baryon acoustic oscillations Ho'oleilana
The structure Ho’oleilana, a candidate for an individual baryon acoustic oscillation, can be identified visually by the human eye as a circular feature around 500 million light-years across. The red circle, shown in animation, makes the presence of this acoustic oscillation even clearer.
Credit. R.B. Tully et al., ApJ, 2023

Mostly Mute Monday tells an astronomical story in images, visuals, and no more than 200 words.


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