Scientific success depends on finding light in darkness

eva headshotWithout light, we cannot see. That’s why “dark galaxies” have eluded astronomers for so long. Two years ago, these star-starved entities were virtually unknown. But scientists now have better ways of seeing, even in dim conditions. New telescopes that can detect the faint light from these mysterious galaxies have enabled scientists to chalk up a considerable list: Dark galaxies seem to be much more common than anyone had thought. One rivals the Milky Way in size but holds only a hundredth as many stars.

Cataloging these dark galaxies, as Christopher Crockett reports (SN: 12/10/16, p. 18), is just the beginning. Scientists still don’t know how such galaxies might have formed or how their small populations of stars can fend off the gravitational grabs of other galaxies. Understanding dark galaxies will take more time and more intense study of their faint light.

Cleverly built telescopes may allow us to examine the cosmic darkness, but a different type of cleverness entirely is required to delve into the minds of animals. Specifically, researchers trying to understand the evolutionary roots of mathematics must resort to complex tests for evaluating how animals judge quantities, Susan Milius reports in “Animals give clues to the origins of human number crunching.” (SN: 12/10/16, p. 22).

Counting seems an all-too-human concept, and yet many creatures can reliably pick out a greater number of treats. Figuring out how animals are making such a choice (is it surface area? volume? number?) has frustrated researchers and occasionally triggered disagreements. But the latest studies show signs that many animals do have some quantitative sense, even if it’s far less sophisticated than our own.

Much less illuminating are the results that supposedly would have provided the final answer about heart health risks posed by the anti-inflammatory pain medicine Celebrex. Like Vioxx, which was taken off the market years ago after it was linked to heart problems, Celebrex (generic name celecoxib) is what’s known as a COX-2 inhibitor. Many experts were concerned that the problems with Vioxx might also show up in people who took Celebrex. But there were little data, so the U.S. Food and Drug Administration asked for a large study to clear up the question. When the results were reported in November at a meeting of the American Heart Association, they brought little resolution, Laura Beil reports in “Popular painkiller doesn’t have more heart risks than others, study claims” (SN: 12/10/16, p. 6). Despite finding no elevated heart risk from Celebrex use, and fewer gastrointestinal side effects compared with ibuprofen and naproxen, the study was not done as cleverly as it needed to be. It enrolled people already at low risk of heart problems, for one. Dosages of medicines shifted during the long study. Many taking Celebrex dropped out before the study was completed. Far from settling the issue, the research leaves many questions unanswered.

In so many areas, science succeeds — seeing into the darkness, exploring the unknown and investigating fantastical ideas. But sometimes the signal is faint, the tools we use too crude, the logic shaky, the deeper understanding still elusive. That’s when scientists need to be more clever, more persistent, more wedded to reason and committed to revealing whatever truths can be found out there in the light.

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