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Falling theory, failing family

The Falling Sky by Pippa Goldschmidt

Kirk Smith 14 July 2013

Uncomfortable truths: detail from the cover

Jeannette's tenacious refusal to accept her own painstaking work will strike the average person as pathological. Experienced scientists, however, will empathize completely

What would it be like to find two galaxies connected in a way that is impossible if The Big Bang theory is correct? In The Falling Sky, Pippa Goldschmidt takes her readers into the mind of an astronomer who observes just such a configuration, and she rewards them with a realistic account of what would happen.

Before I tell more about the heroine of the novel, I want to point out why her dilemma is worth following and understanding. There is a parallel to a paleontologist who finds a fossil inconsistent with the theory of evolution or a climate scientist who discovers a declining temperature trend contrary to global warming. Because of the controversies surrounding the first in education and the second in energy policy, it should be of more than passing interest to the serious reader to experience the thoughts and feelings of a realistic scientist when confronted with a discovery that doesn’t fit into the explanation accepted by nearly all trained scientists in a specialty.

The novel opens with Jeanette presenting the results of her PhD dissertation to a meeting of astronomers. Her findings are in no way extraordinary. (The discrepant galaxies will appear during her next data-collection period on a telescope in Chile.) The scene includes all the elements of real paper sessions at scientific conference, especially the inattentive audience and the snares and arrows of the question period following the talk. The scenes that follow will ring true with readers who have worked side-by-side with other post-docs and suffered through the application process for more permanent academic positions. The other side of Jeanette’s life beyond astronomy also unfolds. She has friends who are not astronomers, in particular, an art-student who begins as an acquaintance, becomes a flatmate, and ultimately a girlfriend. And from Jeanette’s thoughts and dreams, we begin to learn about her strange and morbid childhood. These scenes prepare the reader to experience the full personal impact on Jeanette of the deviant galaxies.

So far, I’ve described only one half of Goldschmidt’s novel. The chapter titles alternate between “Now,” in which Jeanette is a young scientist, and “Then,” which focus on her childhood. Reflections on “then” are also woven through chapters on “now,” so the reader can understand how Jeanette’s tragic and disturbing childhood has shaped her ambivalent present. (This, by the way, is not a story of childhood sexual abuse. Nor does it in any obvious way tie her childhood experiences to her present sexuality, although I’m sure some readers will find connections.)

In an exquisite scene on the Chilean mountaintop in the first “Now” chapter, Jeanette escapes the windowless control room of the telescope to gaze at the night sky the way she did as a child:

She quickly gets her sea legs as she navigates her way from the jewels of the Southern Cross to the fragile puff of the Large Magellanic Cloud, and on to the crowded centre of the Milky Way. There is a rhythm involved in moving from star to star that she can match to her breathing, so at the peak of each breath she arrives at a star and then swings herself onto the next one, spanning the darkness.

And in a passage from the first “Then” chapter we witness the genesis of her career in astronomy:

That night, she learns that it takes a star an hour to travel the width of the tree. An hour of not having to sit with her parents downstairs. An hour of feeling the air brush her face and cool the hot, sad, congested mess inside her.

The interplay of Jeanette’s lonely childhood and current love affair add a depth to her character that enriches the skepticism and objectivity of her work.

Back home in the observatory in Edinburgh, she tackles head-on the possible reasons why her observation might have some explanation that is completely consistent with the Big Bang. She starts by assuming the observation is not real and looking for explanations in the way the telescope works, dust on the lens or random cosmic rays. These can be ruled out using the specifications of the telescope and various other routine manipulations of the data. Then she turns to more speculative explanations. Radiations from one of the two galaxies that mimic an apparent link are ruled out by the absence of abrupt changes in intensity. A pixel-by-pixel intensity analysis reveals a smooth transition across individual pixels, so it’s unlikely two similar features of the two galaxies are superimposed on each other. This passage gracefully conveys in easily understood language the painstaking work that underlies the succinct technical prose of every article published in scientific journals.

For readers who aren’t scientists, the most important feature of the story, and the most surprising to many, will be the doubt, even disbelief, that follows such a discovery. Jeanette will seem to many readers perversely motivated to show that she has made a mistake, that there’s something wrong with her observations. And when she can’t find anything wrong, she’s discouraged and unhappy. Her tenacious refusal to accept her own painstaking work will strike the average person as pathological. Experienced scientists, however, will empathize completely.

These passages reminded me of a similar situation in Jennifer Rohn’s The Honest Look. Both illustrate the complicated role of negative findings in scientific research. The difference – and it’s a big one – is that for Rohn’s protagonist her findings make it questionable that a startup company’s working hypothesis about a specific disease is correct, whereas Jeanette’s finding appears to contradict a central proposition in a major theory. Both women have their jobs and their careers at stake, and Rohn’s heroine, her romantic relationship with a man. The way the drama plays out in the two cases is instructive. In the former, a hypothesis falls and prospects of a promising therapy are crushed. In the latter, the preponderance of evidence supports the prevailing theory so solidly that the community of cosmologists and astronomers including Jeanette reserve judgment on the validity of the finding (not the theory).

Finally, when Jeanette, somewhat against her better judgment, decides to publish her finding, the reader sees from the inside what it is like to defend research that is inconsistent with a major theory. Jeanette’s personal stakes are high because her reputation is sure to be questioned. Her job could be on the line, too, and what happens could affect her long-term future. The kind of scrutiny her type of negative finding receives at the hands of her colleagues is nicely described in scenes that range from in-house seminars to conference papers. They also add weight to the readers’ understanding of Jeanette’s skepticism and ambivalence about publishing the observation.

There’s a risk here that some readers may see what Jeanette goes through as showing that scientists who deviate from orthodoxy are punished by the scientific establishment. However, serious readers will plainly see that Jeanette hasn’t suddenly been converted to a Big-Bang denier by her own work. She wants exactly what her colleagues want: more evidence and evidence from different lines of investigation. The latter is nicely embodied is a space telescope project going on in the Edinburgh observatory, as well as a lovely little subplot involving a galaxy survey. In these details, Jeanette perfectly embodies how almost every young scientist would behave in the face of apparently negative evidence for an otherwise well-supported hypothesis or theory.

But the most important scenes from a general reader’s point of view come when Jeanette is pushed into a television appearance and prodded by an interviewer to explain her “…latest discovery that the Big Bang never happened… in simple language for all of us ignoramuses…” Jeanette finds herself in a situation that any scientist interviewed by the media will recognize as the worst imaginable nightmare – sitting next to an amateur astronomer, who epitomizes the naïve public’s interpretation of a challenge to an important theory they prefer not to believe. What follows describes in excruciating detail what can happen when all the qualifications of careful science are ignored in favor of a simpleminded conclusion that one negative finding demolishes a theory that explains literally tens of thousands of equally precise and careful observations. And in a brilliant touch, Goldschmidt adds to Jeanette’s humiliation with the amateur’s passing remark that female scientists are “too modest.”

To say more about the story would give away the wonderful twists and turns of the plot and a surprising and satisfying ending. Only one revealing detail is worth mentioning. The Falling Sky resolves some of Jeanette’s personal conflicts but leaves the scientific mysteries open to further investigation. No other ending could be more appropriate and authentic. Lay readers and scientists alike will find Goldschmidt’s novel entertaining and will discover in Jeanette a thoroughly captivating and charming person, who will resonate in memory long after they have read the last page of the book.