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At Scientific American: Webb Is Breaking the Big Bang Paradigm

That cosmic blast has been as much of a cultural and philosophical concept as a scientific one — hence the angst over challenging findings

Last weekend, we said — whatever one thinks about the Big Bang, — it was evident that the James Webb Space Telescope had shaken up astronomy. At Scientific American, science writer Jonathan O’Callaghan seems to agree:

In the weeks and months following JWST’s findings of surprisingly mature “early” galaxies, blindsided theorists and observers alike have been scrambling to explain them. Could the bevy of anomalously big and bright early galaxies be illusory, perhaps because of flaws in analysis of the telescope’s initial observations? If genuine, could they somehow be explained by standard cosmological models? Or, just maybe, were they the first hints that the universe is more strange and complex than even our boldest theories had supposed?

At stake is nothing less than our very understanding of how the orderly universe we know emerged from primordial chaos. JWST’s early revelations could be poised to rewrite the opening chapters of cosmic history, which concern not only distant epochs and faraway galaxies but also our own existence here, in the familiar Milky Way. “You build these machines not to confirm the paradigm, but to break it,” says JWST scientist Mark McCaughrean, a senior advisor for science and exploration at the European Space Agency. “You just don’t know how it will break.”

Jonathan O’Callaghan, “JWST’s First Glimpses of Early Galaxies Could Break Cosmology” at Scientific American (September 14, 2022)

McCaughrean may not be exaggerating:

The most startling explanation is that the canonical LCDM cosmological model is wrong and requires revision. “These results are very surprising and hard to get in our standard model of cosmology,” [Michael] Boylan-Kolchin says. “And it’s probably not a small change. We’d have to go back to the drawing board.”

Jonathan O’Callaghan, “JWST’s First Glimpses of Early Galaxies Could Break Cosmology” at Scientific American (September 14, 2022)

That’s why those who had always doubted the Big Bang were suddenly heard from. Others rushed to defend it, pointing out that — as an origin theory — it depends on a good deal of evidence that the JWST is not designed to evaluate. At the very least, we are promised “revolutionary changes.”

Those changes are not only about science. There is a lot of culture and philosophy built into the Big Bang Theory as we understand it. Yes, we are thinking of the popular sitcom (2007–2019) of the name:

On a more serious note though, neurosurgeon Michael Egnor disputes with philosopher David Papineau as to whether the Big Bang is a natural event. Robert J. Marks considers the mathematics behind Sheldon’s theory that in no universe would he dance with Penny — and concludes that Sheldon may well be right. And astrobiologist Caleb Scharf offers an argument based on the Big Bang for free will.

At Big Think, theoretical astrophysicist Ethan Siegel lists some of the eyeopeners:

● There are greater numbers of galaxies out there than Hubble ever saw, including at distances that Hubble would never be sensitive to.

● Some of these galaxies appear more evolved, more massive, and at earlier stages than not only we’d previously seen, but than many models and simulations had expected.

● Some of them might even be massive and quite evolved at epochs between 200 and 350 million years after the Big Bang; the current confirmed record-holder, from Hubble, was already 407 million years after the Big Bang…

Ethan Siegel, “Ask Ethan: Has the JWST disproven the Big Bang?” at Big Think (August 26, 2022)

The Big Bang as a basic concept will doubtless survive. But much “settled science” seems to be getting a, perhaps needed, shakeup.


You may also wish to read: Re the Webb findings uproar: Who owns the Big Bang anyhow? Researcher and science writer Eric Lerner would never have attracted the attention he has in recent weeks if the Webb findings were not disturbing to many cosmologists. To avoid absurd “infinity” math, we just assume our universe has a beginning. But then the Webb shook up many details, creating distress and anger.


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At Scientific American: Webb Is Breaking the Big Bang Paradigm