x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Why scientists can't speak simply

Why scientists can't speak like normal people, and why nothing at all is simple.

Stellar careers are unpredictable. Some stars rise and stay up forever. I'm thinking Bogart, Elvis and the Indian actor and comedian Kader Khan. Some stars rise, fall and rise - Mickey Rourke, for example. Some stars lumber to get up there and never quite look the part - poor old Sir Roger Moore.

There's a star called CW Leonis who burned bright and is fading fast. Gone for an early bath - literally. Never heard of Leonis? That's because old CW is not a Hollywood star but your actual celestial, solar system star, which has reached the time of life when it's slowing right down. And now astronomers have discovered that it's surrounded by water, right down to the surface - which seems impossible, but there it is. The Herschel telescope says it's so and Herschel doesn't lie.

Astronomers are burbling like brooks about it. The water exists in all its forms - from water to steam to very, very, very hot steam (they don't mention ice, but I assume it's there). As Prof Mike Barlow of University College London put it: "The abundances are high in all the excitation lines." Er, thanks for that, Mike. Why can't scientists speak like normal people? The explanation is frankly unintelligible. It's to do with gas, dust, carbon monoxide, stellar wind, ultraviolet light, oxygen and hydrogen.

But what is Herschel and what's it for? The European Space Agency's Göran Pilbratt is on hand to explain: "Very simply, the science pillars of Herschel are to understand better how stars and galaxies form and how they evolve." Gosh, Göran, the science pillars? What are they? Do scientists have pillar fights with them? Well, it seems that how stars evolve is more complicated than we thought. And those dreaded words link us back to modern life here on Earth. Because if there is a single phrase that every inhabitant of modernity needs it is: "It's more complicated than we thought." The economy? More complicated than we thought. Relationships? More complicated than we thought. Trying to pay your Salik bill? More complicated than we thought. It's enough to make one want to join old CW wallowing in the Turkish baths of space.

Finally, it's just a little galling that while most of Europe is grappling with painful financial deficits, its space agency is squandering Dh9.4 billion to explore the bathing habits of has-been suns. But I expect they'd tell me it's more complicated than I thought.