Jan 02 2007

Science Controversies of 2006

In the realm of science, conflict is good.

True scientific controversies, especially those that capture the public’s attention, represent science at its best. At the heart of all such controversies is a scientific mystery. Two or more sides support different hypotheses – different ways to interpret the existing evidence. Each side probes for weaknesses, not only in their opponents’ hypotheses but in their own. New experiments or observations are proposed to settle the debate, and eventually questions are answered, vagaries are clarified, and missing pieces are filled in. Often, the result is a consensus, with a clear winner. Just as often, new questions and controversies spring from the answers to the old ones, and the cycle repeats itself. It is a spectacle of ideas, logic, evidence, and scientific methodology – and an incredible opportunity to educate the public about science.

In 2006 two scientific controversies especially caught my attention:

What’s in a Name

In 2006 we lost a planet. Pluto was “demoted” from a planet to a dwarf planet by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). The current classification retains 8 planets, from Mercury to Neptune. Ceres, Pluto, and newly named Eris are now designated as dwarf planets.

This was perhaps the most publicized, and least important, controversy of 2006. However, I disagree with those who claim that it was of no scientific importance – a matter of mere labeling. How we categorize the world reflects our understanding of the world. The new division reflects the understanding that true planets form through accretion and by necessity gravitationally dominate their orbit. Dwarf planets are not dominant – for example Pluto shares its orbit with its moon, Charon, which is almost as large as it is.

The Return of the Hobbit

In 2003, on the Indonesian island of Flores, an 18,000 year old diminutive human fossil skeleton was discovered. The initial description presented the fossils as a new species, Homo floresiensis (dubbed by the media as the Hobbit).

However, in the May 2006 issue of Science an alternative interpretation was published – that the skeleton represented a fully modern Homo sapiens with a congenital disorder called microcephaly. In support of this notion is the fact that the modern day natives of Flores are of very short stature, often 4-5 ft. tall. Therefore, a modern human ancestor of the Flores natives suffering from microcephaly, which itself causes short stature could have resulted in the 3ft. 6 inch tall female. The original discoverers, however, stuck to their interpretation that the find represented a new species. They point to the discovery of 9 more specimens of floresiensis as definitive proof that this was a species – not a malformed individual.

The controversy continues – focusing mainly on the specific features of the most complete specimen, while a more detailed analysis of the new specimens are under way. This conflict will continue at least into 2007, but will likely be settled by more definitive fossil finds.

The good thing about conflicts in science is that all sides must eventually yield to reality.

Happy New Year, everyone.

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