Reproducible Results and Baby Planets

When I report science news, discuss new discoveries, and get excited about new results, it can be difficult to hear that little voice in the back of my mind that says ‘reproducible results.’  It’s the voice of the pure scientist that reminds me to be critical of the things I read, and be open to critical review for the things I write and say.

This is an ALMA image of the dust disk around HL Tauri. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

Any result isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on unless it can be independently reproduced.  This is a key to scientific advancement.  If the result can’t be reproduced, then something is wrong.  It may be an error with the original equipment, an improper analysis, or a few too many assumptions on the part of the original science team.  If the result is reproducible, then not only does it gain credibility, but the new data contributes to the strength of the original result, and can even expand on it.

A couple of years ago, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) snapped a lovely shot of star HL Tauri, showing gaps in the dusty disk of the baby star.  Naturally these gaps would be the location of newly forming planets, but of course, the results needed to be reproduced.  In the case of HL Tauri, ALMA used a different filter, one that reveals gas in the disk, to see if the gaps matched the dusty ones from 2014.  The fantastic result is that the gas and dust gaps matched, meaning it is very likely new planets are forming there.

Because the star is so young, the planets are unexpected.  Previously, planets were thought to form later on as the star developed.  This new result means that theories of planet formation have to be reconsidered.  Ultimately, this is the great thing about new science.  It lets us adjust our theories and zero in on a complete understanding.

And when we can reproduce the results, we end up with trustworthy science to support our best theories.

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