In the early part of the 20th century, astronomers engaged in a prolonged debate over what were then known as spiral nebulae—diffuse pinwheels of light that powerful telescopes revealed to be common in the night sky. Some astronomers thought that these nebulae were spiral galaxies like the Milky Way at such great distances from the Earth that individual stars could not be distinguished. Others believed that they were clouds of gas within our own galaxy.
One astronomer who thought that spiral nebulae were within the Milky Way, Adriaan van Maanen of the Mount Wilson Observatory, sought to resolve the issue by comparing photographs of the nebulae taken several years apart. After making a series of painstaking measurements, van Maanen announced that he had found roughly consistent unwinding motions in the nebulae. The detection of such motions indicated that the spirals had to be within the Milky Way, since motions would be impossible to detect in distant objects.
Van Maanen’s reputation caused many astronomers to accept a galactic location for the nebulae. A few years later, however, van Maanen’s colleague Edwin Hubble, using a new 100-inch telescope at Mount Wilson, conclusively demonstrated that the nebulae were in fact distant galaxies; van Maanen’s observations had to be wrong.
Studies of van Maanen’s procedures have not revealed any intentional misrepresentation or sources of systematic error. Rather, he was working at the limits of observational accuracy, and his expectations influenced his measurements. Even cautious researchers sometimes admit, “If I hadn’t believed it, I never would have seen it.”