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Astrophysicist: Webb Finds May Bring “Revolutionary Changes”

It doesn’t disprove the Big Bang, says Brian Koberlein… but read the fine print. And Fermilab’s Don Lincoln gets the religious implications all wrong

Recently, the James Webb Space Telescope started sending back observations about our universe that started quite the tizzy. Did the Big Bang even happen? More focused: If it happened, did it happen when and how the conventional story runs?

Webb can see much farther than Hubble. Credit: NASA, ESA, Leah Hustak (STScI)

At Universe Today, astrophysicist Brian Koberlein tries to put the matter in perspective:

Most significantly, it has found more galaxies and more distant galaxies than there should be, and that could lead to some revolutionary changes in our standard model. Our current understanding is that after the big bang the universe went through a period known as the dark ages. During this period the first light of the cosmos had faded, and the first stars and galaxies hadn’t yet formed. Webb is so sensitive it can see some of the youngest galaxies that formed just after the dark ages. We would expect those young galaxies to be less numerous and less developed than later galaxies. But the Webb observations have found very redshifted, very young galaxies that are both common and surprisingly mature.

It’s the kind of puzzling and unexpected data astronomers were hoping for. It’s why we wanted to build the Webb telescope in the first place. And it tells us that while the big bang model isn’t wrong, some of our assumptions about it might be.

Brian Koberlein, “The Latest Webb Observations Don’t Disprove The Big Bang, But They Are Interesting” at Universe Today (August 12, 2022)

So yes, “revolutionary changes” in our understanding of the universe’s history may be afoot as astrophysicists grapple with the news dump from the Webb.

Sometimes, a bit of history is useful in understanding public reactions. Fermilab senior scientist Don Lincoln offers:

Current theory suggests that the most ancient galaxies should be very small. Furthermore, they should be irregularly shaped. Over time, these tiny galaxies would slowly merge, eventually becoming much larger, like our own Milky Way. However, these infrared-visible galaxies seem to be far larger and more regularly shaped than what was predicted.

And this fact has resulted in some commentary, especially from people with a long hostility to the idea of the Big Bang. (One article cites a scholarly paper on the topic, whose title begins with the provocative word “Panic!”) One such individual is Eric Lerner, who penned the book The Big Bang Never Happened. Others who endorse either creationism or intelligent design are also using these reports to claim the same thing.

Don Lincoln, “No, the James Webb Space Telescope did not disprove the Big Bang” at Big Think (August 25, 2022)

Whoops! The history is quite different from what Dr. Lincoln must suppose. Originally, materialist atheists opposed the Big Bang precisely because it seemed too much like creationism or theism. But the available evidence supported it, which pleases most theists.

Some scientists who are theists have even built significant ministries around advocating the Big Bang as a reason for belief. Of all parties, that last group has the most to lose if the pattern of evidence changes. C’est la vie…

Straight-shooting theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, author of Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray, takes the view that we don’t know and never will:

Now, most physicists, me included, think that the Big Bang singularity is a mathematical artifact and not what really happened We should be using a better theory, one that includes the quantum properties of space. Unfortunately, we don’t have the theory for this calculation. And so, all that we can reliably say is: If we extrapolate Einstein’s equations back in time, we get the Big Bang singularity. We think that this isn’t physically correct. So we don’t know how the universe began. And that’s it…

So if you read yet another headline about some physicist who thinks our universe could have begun this way or that way, you should really read this as a creation myth written in the language of mathematics. It’s not wrong, but it isn’t scientific either. The Big Bang is the simplest explanation we know, and that is probably wrong, and that’s it. That’s all that science can tell us.

Sabine Hossenfelder, “We don’t know how the universe began, and we will never know” at BackRe(Action) (August 27, 2022)

A creation myth?

Okay. But wait… If we can separate the idea of a beginning from the details of the Big Bang, we might be on firmer ground here. Positing a beginning to the universe in principle avoids the absurdities associated with positing an infinity outside of mathematics. And that’s logic talking, not religion.

By all means, stay tuned.


You may also wish to read:

Theoretical physicist: Can’t avoid a beginning for our universe. Recent shakeups from the James Webb Space Telescope images invite fundamental questions like, Does the universe have a beginning? The big Telescope made new data available, some of it “amazing.” And if it had only confirmed what we know, how would we know it had ever left the launch pad?

and

James Webb Space Telescope shows Big Bang didn’t happen? Wait… The unexpected new data coming back from the telescope are inspiring panic among astronomers. Webb was expected to merely confirm the Standard Model of the universe but its images are “surprisingly smooth, surprisingly small and surprisingly old.”


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Astrophysicist: Webb Finds May Bring “Revolutionary Changes”