LEADING ARTICLE : Course of true science ne'er did run smooth

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What is this universe we live in? How big is it? How old? Such questions have intrigued scientists - and indeed theologians - for generations. Perhaps this could be the year when the correct answers will emerge.

The Hubble space telescope provides astronomers with the data they need to solve some of the more persistent problems of the universe. It has now spent nearly five years in orbit above Earth. But there is a problem. Last October the telescope's measurem

e nts provided scientists with a logical inconsistency: the universe appears to be only half as old as some of the stars it contains.

Reliable techniques reveal that certain stars in the Virgo constellation are about 14 billion years old, give or take a couple of billion years. Yet when the Hubble telescope was used to calculate the age of the universe, by measuring its rate of expansion, scientists estimated that it might be only 8 billion years old.

Such paradoxes are not new to cosmology. After all, Albert Einstein could not believe his own calculations which suggested that the universe was expanding. So he contrived a formula to counterbalance the known gravitational attraction of stars and galaxies with a repulsive force tending to push them apart. As a result, Einstein erroneously modified one of his theories of relativity to do away with the expansion that scientists subsequently observed. He later regretted what he called the biggest blunder of his life.

Ironically, scientists are looking again at Einstein's force of repulsion. They believe that a mysterious force akin to the one he invoked is in fact causing the universe to expand at an ever faster rate. This may account for the apparent discrepancy between the Hubble telescope's 8 billion year-old universe and the15 billion year-old stars and galaxies in it.

Amid all this confusion, some people may be tempted to dismiss scientists as untrustworthy. Yet it is their very willingness to test, retest and reconsider that ensures the health and vigour of true science.