The 10 biggest physics and astronomy lies from 2023 | by Ethan Siegel | Starts With A Bang! | Dec, 2023

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 (Acknowledgment: Lia Medeiros, xkcd))

Misinformation was extremely popular in 2023, as bad science often made global headlines. Learn the truth behind these 10 dubious stories.

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

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.

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. The space between star clusters was filled with neutral, opaque atoms, and the background temperature during this time was not 3K, but hot enough to boil liquid nitrogen. Just 100 million years after the Big Bang, when the first stars were forming, the Universe was tens of thousands of times denser than it is today. (Credit: NAOJ)

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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