Is there any absolute evidence of star formation inside of nebulae (AKA stellar nurseries) as is suggested and even stated as fact by many textbooks?

  • $\begingroup$ When you ask for "absolute evidence" is there anything short of "We watched it happen." that would satisfy you? From observation, the process is slow enough that we haven't had enough time to watch it happen. (I ask, because the way you phrased the question suggests that you want something pretty specific.) $\endgroup$ – Mark Olson Sep 8 '18 at 17:17

In science there is no such thing as an irrefutable fact, there is just the best theory we currently have that explains all the data and makes sense. That is very different from an assumption.

A theory is something that you can test - make models and predictions and check that they match up to real life. An assumption is something that you don't have evidence for but you think it should make sense, so you choose to believe it.

Our current understanding of star formation and stellar nurseries is an excellent theory - it has been around for a long time, built up of many parts that have each been tested and confirmed, it matches observations in many ways. It's not perfect and there are still things we don't know (otherwise scientists would have no jobs) but in high school level textbooks we can reasonably present this as a 'fact' because we are pretty certain it won't change any time in the next 50 years.

An assumption would be like me assuming you are reading a high school textbook. It fits the facts (the level of detail in your question) but I haven't tested it (asked you about the book).

  • $\begingroup$ Sounds to me like you are saying we can reasonably present this theory as "fact" because we are "pretty sure" (we assume we are correct) as well as we (we being who exactly?) are "pretty certain" this assumption will not change in the next 50 years. Am I pretty close to understanding the subtext? $\endgroup$ – Bucky Rogerson Sep 11 '18 at 15:41
  • $\begingroup$ I wish I could upvote this answer more than once. This is the essence of science — which unfortunately make many people skeptic about science, because we're too honest and say "It's only a model". This makes it difficult to argue against skeptics, politicians and religious people, because they tend to possess absolute truths. $\endgroup$ – pela Sep 11 '18 at 19:30
  • $\begingroup$ @BuckyRogerson "We" here is basically all of humanity, but mainly the astronomical and scientific community. I'm assuming (again, a reasonably sensible guess but with no proof) that the people who know the most about this are going to be those all over the world who are paid to study it every day, but the knowledge itself belongs to everyone. I don't understand your comment clearly enough to confirm or deny your interpretation, I feel like I made my answer as clear as I can. $\endgroup$ – FJC Sep 12 '18 at 9:24

Nothing in science is "irrefutable", but some things are well enough established that only a fool bets against them. Theories of stellar birth in nebulae are close to being in that category. (But the devil can still be found lurking in the details.)

One of the things that give us confidence that a theory correctly describes the world is when it is large, covering a wide range of phenomena with only a small set of moving parts. The idea that the galaxy started as hot gas which condensed into stars and planets explains a very great many facts without any special assumptions (meaning without assuming anything we can't verify in the lab) except the assumption that there was a large cloud of relatively cool gas and dust to begin with.

Given that, we can see how the laws of physics discovered in the lab cause the cloud to break into smaller, denser clouds each of which then collapses in multiple places forming a cluster of new stars of the same age embedded in the remains of the nebula. And those same laws of physics show that some of the gas and dust that doesn't make it into the new star will condense into planets.

It's a very parsimonious explanation. I know of no alternative explanations for stars which don't assume a bunch of new stuff we haven't seen in the lab or, worse, assume stuff which contradicts what we've seen in the lab.

On top of all the physics, astronomy observes clouds of gas and dust and clusters of stars and all the things in between. The process is too slow for us to have watched a specific star start as a nebula, condense out, and end up shining in empty space, but we see all the stages. (It's like seeing a crowd of people from little babies to young adults to the elderly -- even though you don't have time to watch a baby grow up, it's much more reasonable to conclude that you're seeing individuals of the same species at different stages of their life cycle than that you're seeing many different species.)

The theory is also strong because it is easily falsifiable. Strong theories make predictions which can be tested and which might fail the test. Weak theories are so vague or hand-waving that they can accommodate any observation without failing.

So that stars condense out of clouds of gas and dust is rock-solid science. As with any science, we need to always be prepared to change our theories when confronted with new observations...but not before.

(There is still a lot we don't know about the details of the whole process that turns a cloud of gas and dust into a planetary system -- it's a hot topic of current research. But so far, anyway, there's nothing visible that suggests the basic theory is wrong; just that the details are complicated enough to keep us working to understand them.)

  • $\begingroup$ I was under the impression that we havent seen star formation in the lab. $\endgroup$ – Bucky Rogerson Sep 11 '18 at 15:49
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    $\begingroup$ ?? I don't think I said that. What we've observed in the lab is how solids and gasses behave in various conditions, how gravity works, etc. When the laws of gravity, fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, nuclear physics, chemistry, etc., etc., etc., are applied to a cloud of gas and dust, we see that it must break into clumps which collapse into dense knots of gas, and that the bigger knots heat up to incandescence and start fusing hydrogen and glow. I.e., become stars. To get there, we've only invoked things we have observed in experiments in the lab., $\endgroup$ – Mark Olson Sep 11 '18 at 15:57

Good question but what would you call absolute evidence? There is evidence that these nebula regions contain a large number of very young stars. A larger number than one would expect to find in a normal or regular region of space. I don't know if you consider that absolute evidence but absolute evidence may require us to view things that cannot be seen from afar. So we have to make assumptions. Hope this helps.

  • $\begingroup$ Yes thank you, it helps me understand that texts should mention that this is assumption and not stated as irrefutable fact. $\endgroup$ – Bucky Rogerson Sep 10 '18 at 14:47
  • $\begingroup$ @BuckyRogerson Perhaps if you gave us an example of what you think is an "irrefutable fact", perhaps we could understand what you're having a problem with. $\endgroup$ – Rob Jeffries Sep 11 '18 at 22:44
  • $\begingroup$ H20 for example. Two hydrogen atoms bonded with an oxygen atom. Observable in the lab. Repeatable in the lab. Real science. Not making up a theory to coincide with your personal world-view and repeatedly attempting to make the data fit the model. $\endgroup$ – Bucky Rogerson Sep 12 '18 at 17:53

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