In science, no work is completed until it has been picked to pieces

Dangerous dithering.

What does a scientist have to do to convince you? The answer used to be “wait until his critics die” – hence the physicist Max Planck’s assertion that science advances one funeral at a time.

But sometimes even that is not enough. Late last month, the smell researcher Luca Turin published striking new evidence supporting an idea first put forward by Sir Malcolm Dyson in 1938. Dyson presented his “vibrational” theory of how our sense of smell works to universal apathy. Three generations later, scientists are still saying “meh”.

That year, 1938, was also when it was first argued that pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere would raise global temperatures. The idea came from the steam engineer Guy Stewart Callendar; the broad response was “implausible”. Today, in 2013, scientists have shifted: they generally agree that Callendar was right. Yet there remains a dangerous level of disagreement about the detail.

At least Turin’s scientific peers have presented him with a clear path to follow. Dyson’s idea was that when a molecule gets up our nose, its characteristic smell is created by the way the bonds within that molecule vibrate. In a clever piece of experimental work, Turin has shown that human beings can distinguish between two molecules that differ only in the way they vibrate. The two molecules tested were both cyclopentadecanone, but while one contained normal hydrogen atoms the other contained “deuterated” hydrogen, which has an added neutron in its atomic nucleus. The additional particle creates a difference in the way the molecules vibrate. And that is why, according to Turin, they smell different to us.

The experiment punches a hole in the accepted theory of smell, which says that smell experiences are triggered by differently shaped molecules fitting different receptors in the nose. This “lock and key” idea can’t explain why two identically shaped molecules smell different. But Turin’s critics said last month that before they will even consider accepting his theory, they want him to show exactly what goes on in human smell receptors.

They are right to make such demands. This is science, where no work is finished until it has been picked to pieces. But that is exactly why it has been so easy to do so little about climate change since 1938. Later this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will make some highly equivocal, backtracking announcements. In a report due for release in December, the IPCC will concede that we can’t be sure tropical cyclones will become more frequent, or that droughts will get worse. Worries that the Gulf Stream will collapse, tentatively raised in the 2007 IPCC report, are allayed: such an event is “unlikely” to occur in the foreseeable future.

Concern over details can have an unhelpful effect, masking the big picture on climate change – the one that Nicholas Stern, who wrote the UK government’s 2006 review on the science, said at Davos last month is “far, far worse” than we were led to believe originally. Until that, rather than the detail, becomes the focus, we can continue to dither over whether to do anything, let alone deciding what course we might take.

It does not matter a great deal that no one is willing to risk his career by backing Luca Turin – but to wait for absolute certainty over the details of climate change before we do anything about it will spell life or death for many. If science continues to advance one funeral at a time, its acceleration is assured; and there will be no shortage of funerals in a world that’s 4° warmer.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone

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The best Instagram accounts to follow if you love space

As new space findings hit the news on an almost daily basis, the app offers an alternative window onto the universe.

If there’s anything that can break us away from the humdrum monotony of modern life, it’s space. It renders us awe-struck and captures our imagination with its vastness and surreal imagery, and as astronomy-related research expands, cosmic mysteries continue to unfold.

Whether it’s the occurrence of rare celestial events, the discovery of exoplanets that could potentially harbour life, or the confirmation of gravitational waves that ripple through the space-time continuum, it seems that there are new findings propelled onto our newsfeeds daily.  

Yet one of the best ways of keeping up to date with the latest research and projects at the frontier of space is on Instagram, the social media platform. Here are some of the accounts you should be following to get the greatest insight into space:

1. SpaceX (@spacex)

The aerospace company SpaceX designs spacecrafts and reusable rockets in the hope that their technology can one day make human life multi-planetary. Spearheaded be CEO Elon Musk, the company has the lofty ambition of one day colonising Mars. Below is a spectacular image of the company’s Falcon 9 rocket in its first-stage entry:


Photographer unexpectedly captures Falcon 9 second stage burn and first stage entry @slowcountrylife

A photo posted by SpaceX (@spacex) on


2. International Space Station (@iss)

The International Space Station, a habitable satellite whirling around the Earth approximately 16 times per day in low orbit, has an Instagram feed displaying the equipment on board as well as stunning pictures of the Earth from a distance. Here’s a picture from the station 250 miles above earth depicting the Earth as an azure blue marble:


The blue of the #bahamas can't be mistaken, even from 250 miles above. #YearInSpace #nasa #space #spacestation : @stationcdrkelly

A photo posted by International Space Station (@iss) on


3. Tim Peake (@astro_timpeake)

Currently aboard the International Space Station is Tim Peake, a British astronaut. As he has carried out his work on Expedition 46/47 on the station, he has shared a range of photos of Earth that he has shot with his Nikon D4 from the vantage point of space, from reefs off the coast of Mozambique to the glint of sun highlighting Vancouver Island. Here we have a clear image of the Pacific “Ring of Fire”:


3/3: The Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’ clear to see amongst the volcanoes of Kamchatka, Russia

A photo posted by Tim Peake (@astro_timpeake) on


4. Scott Kelly (@stationcdrkelly)

Scott Kelly is an engineer and a retired American astronaut who recently spent a year commanding the International Space Station, travelling 143,846,525 miles around our globe in the process. A quick scroll through his profile will demonstrate just how profound his experience must have been at the shores of space, and includes a host of images of the aurora borealis:


#GoodMorning #aurora and the Pacific Northwest! #YearInSpace #northernlights #beautiful #morning #space #spacestation #iss

A photo posted by Scott Kelly (@stationcdrkelly) on


5. Nasa Goddard (@nasagoddard)

Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Centre was the company’s very first flight centre. It’s the largest of its kind, and the official Instagram account for the centre serves as a highlight reel for everything NASA is working on. There are behind-the-scenes looks at the James Webb Space Telescope under construction, computer-simulated images of supermassive black holes, and clear views of distant galaxies captured by the Hubble Space Telescope:


Observations by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have taken advantage of gravitational lensing to reveal the largest sample of the faintest and earliest known galaxies in the universe. Some of these galaxies formed just 600 million years after the big bang and are fainter than any other galaxy yet uncovered by Hubble. The team has determined for the first time with some confidence that these small galaxies were vital to creating the universe that we see today. An international team of astronomers, led by Hakim Atek of the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland, has discovered over 250 tiny galaxies that existed only 600-900 million years after the big bang— one of the largest samples of dwarf galaxies yet to be discovered at these epochs. The light from these galaxies took over 12 billion years to reach the telescope, allowing the astronomers to look back in time when the universe was still very young. Although impressive, the number of galaxies found at this early epoch is not the team’s only remarkable breakthrough, as Johan Richard from the Observatoire de Lyon, France, points out. “The faintest galaxies detected in these Hubble observations are fainter than any other yet uncovered in the deepest Hubble observations.” By looking at the light coming from the galaxies the team discovered that the accumulated light emitted by these galaxies could have played a major role in one of the most mysterious periods of the universe’s early history — the epoch of reionization. Reionization started when the thick fog of hydrogen gas that cloaked the early universe began to clear. Ultraviolet light was now able to travel over larger distances without being blocked and thus the universe became transparent to ultraviolet light. Credit: NASA/ESA #nasagoddard #Hubble #HST #space #galaxy

A photo posted by NASA Goddard (@nasagoddard) on


6. Roscosmos (@roscosmosofficial)

Roscosmos is the Russian Federal Space Agency at the heart of all space endeavours in Russia. The agency is involved in the maintenance and progression of the International Space Station, and is working on its own research projects such as a planned robotic mission to one of Mars’s moons.  Here’s the launch of a rocket from the Vostochny Cosmodrome which is under construction:


7. Nasa (@nasa)

Over the years, Nasa has firmly committed to pushing the boundaries of space exploration, and, as its 12.3m Instagram acolytes would agree, it has been successful. As part of the Frontier Fields campaign investigating galaxy clusters, a recent deep field image from the Hubble revealed bounds of galaxies in the constellation of Leo:


Nearly as deep as the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, which contains approximately 10,000 galaxies, this incredible image from the Hubble Space Telescope reveals thousands of colorful galaxies in the constellation of Leo (The Lion). This vibrant view of the early universe was captured as part of the Frontier Fields campaign, which aims to investigate galaxy clusters in more detail than ever before, and to explore some of the most distant galaxies in the universe. Galaxy clusters are massive. They can have a tremendous impact on their surroundings, with their immense gravity warping and amplifying the light from more distant objects. This phenomenon, known as gravitational lensing, can help astronomers to see galaxies that would otherwise be too faint, aiding our hunt for residents of the primordial universe. Image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt #nasa #hubble #astronomy #science #space #galaxy #galaxies

A photo posted by NASA (@nasa) on