in which I am befuddled

Scientists have a long and amusing relationship with articles that describe them as baffled, bemused, astonished, shocked, etc etc… Scientists Surprised by Milky Way Dust Discs that Survive UV Radiation.

Hubble Finds Unidentified Object in Space, Scientists Puzzled.

NASA, Scientists Surprised To Learn Saturn’s 6th Largest Moon Enceladus May Have Warm Ocean.

Scientists surprised to find fish thriving in the dark underworld of Antarctica.

and my ever-favorite “Boffins Baffled”: Boffins Baffled by Asteroid that looks like a Comet

I could go on, but I think I’ve established my ability to use Google by now.

There’s even a website for it:

The point is, this happens all the time. It’s more of a case of lazy headline writing. Something unexpected was found, and the journalist wanted to convey that. The problem is the tone, which makes it sound like we’re at a loss for words, unable to offer any explanation. If you see enough of those it starts to sound like scientists are routinely completely out of their element (which isn’t good for scientists or science). Sometimes they/we are genuinely surprised; there ARE discoveries that are confusing – the origin of the mysterious radio bursts that turned out to be pulsars, for example – but even those don’t go unexplained or unstudied for long. I don’t know who said it first, but the sound of discovery isn’t “Eureka!”, it’s “What the heck is THAT?”

In a lot of ways, it’s often not even a question of “wow, what is THAT” so much as an “ok, I guess this theory needs some tweaks”. That’s how science works! For instance, take the first article I linked to: Dust disks in the galaxy that have survived where theory says they shouldn’t. The key thing is that near the center of the Galaxy there are a lot of very massive stars, and massive stars generate a lot of light. It’s fairly well established that massive stars blow away dust; they produce giant dustless bubbles around themselves like the aptly-named Bubble Nebula. It’s also fairly well established that young stars forming from a collapsing cloud of gas (as they all do) go through a stage where they are surrounded by a dust disk. The theory goes that the really massive and really bright stars right next door (astronomically speaking) to the young ones should have blown away their dust disks already. And yet a survey found that the disks are still there.

However, even in the article, two classes of solutions are offered. One: The disks don’t actually dissipate as fast as we thought; Two: the disks DO dissipate as fast as we thought but something is replenishing the supply, like an asteroid belt smashing itself to bits. We know that happens too; that’s how the dust disk around the nearby star Vega is explained. Those are hypotheses that are testable, and it’s not like anyone is throwing up their hands at this mystery.

In fact, here’s a contrary example: LHC confirms the Standard Model of Physics and that creates a big problem. To summarize, the LHC, in discovering the Higgs Boson exactly where it was supposed to be, actually made things worse for particle physicists who were hoping to find some flaw in the Standard Model of Particle Physics that would open up a new avenue of exploration and give them something new to sink their teeth into. If anything, they were disappointed that there WASN’T anything surprising in there.

So in summary: Scientists like surprises, because that gives us something to DO. It gives us mysteries to solve, and those are the most exciting parts of the job. That’s the point of science, and I wish that were more widely understood. And I wish journalists would find other ways of explaining the Cool New Thing We Found.

At the very least, making it more alliterative would make all of this more fun: Boffins Baffled! Scientists Startled! Astronomers Amazed! Geologists Gobsmacked! Archaeologists Astounded! Physicists Perplexed! Chemists Confounded! Psychologists Puzzled! Sociologists Stunned! Zoologists… zoinked? Well, you get the idea.


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