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Webb Telescope Builders “Are Questioning Previous Science”

In an interview at Futurism, Webb astronomer Garth Illingworth shares how the new findings are shaking up what we think we know about the universe

Futurism’s Maggie Harrison recently interviewed UC Santa Cruz astronomer Garth Illingworth, one of the developers of the James Webb Space Telescope. His observations put the astronomers’ astonishment at the unexpected new findings of very old, developed galaxies in perspective:

And I would just say, you know, when I was sitting there watching the first images, I was just blown away by their beauty and the character there, the information. But one of the things I was thinking afterwards was: in that hour, I saw, like, six sets of data. I have to say, that’s more data than I’ve ever seen from anything in any sort of reasonable time period in my whole life. Scientists are going to be working on those alone for ages, because there’s so much information in those. And that was just a pathfinder — I mean, that was tens of hours of time, so we’re gonna multiply that by 100, 1000 times every year.

One of the things that I often get asked is: why does it matter? It’s a lot of money. I’ve often thought about this, and I think the human race has a deep interest in our origins. We’re interested in how we came about, how life came about. And then you really go, well, we’re sitting on this little planet, how do the planets form? You can take this origins question, and that’s what astronomy is really about. Webb, Hubble, these things are just origins machines. And what I really like about this, in so many ways, is that we’re living in a very divisive environment, and this interest cuts across the lot of these political and otherwise areas beautifully.

Maggie Harrison, “The JWST’s Data Is So Incredible That Even Those Who Built It Are Questioning Previous Science” at Futurism (September 21, 2022)

Harrison points to her article from August 30 as well: “Scientists puzzled because James Webb is seeing stuff that just shouldn’t be there.

The astonishment we encounter helps us account for the varying reactions in recent weeks:

The images were “surprisingly smooth, surprisingly small and surprisingly old,” which does not confirm conventional current cosmology. So a big worry has emerged: Could the “revolutionary changes” be seen as disproving the Big Bang? Scientific American went so far as to say that Webb could “break cosmology.”

Otherwise obscure researcher and science writer Eric Lerner, who always favored a plasma universe over a Big Bang, was routinely denounced (“denialism” “pseudo-science”), possibly because denouncing him enabled some to vent their frustrations.

Some of us take the view that, whatever becomes of the specific confident assumptions of various PhD theses, assuming that the universe has a beginning circumvents absurd “infinity” math. Thus the basic idea of the Big Bang will survive.

What’s really been shaken is the idea that science is a cosmic answer machine that reliably tells us what we already believed was true anyway.

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


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Webb Telescope Builders “Are Questioning Previous Science”