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Tuesday, August 23, 2022

No, James Webb Space Telescope Images Do Not Debunk the Big Bang

No, James Webb Space Telescope Images Do Not Debunk the Big Bang

“The JWST provides an intriguing look at the early universe, but it's not yet rewriting fundamental theories of the cosmos.

James Webb Space Telescope in space (artist's rendering)

How did the universe come to be? The prevailing theory is everything that is began with the Big Bang. In a nutshell, the theory suggests everything, everywhere, all at once suddenly burst to life. The caveat being everything and everywhere prior to the Big Bang is fairly hard to conceptualize. 

The Big Bang theory is currently the best model we have for the birth of our universe. Astrophysicists have shown the theory explains, fairly comprehensively, phenomena we've observed in space over decades, like lingering background radiation and elemental abundances. It's a robust framework that gives us a pretty good idea of how the cosmos came into being some 13.8 billion years ago. 

But with the flurry of preprint papers and popular science articles about the James Webb Space Telescope's first images, old, erroneous claims that the Big Bang never happened at all have been circulating on social media and in the press in recent weeks. One scientist has claimed that the JWST images are inspiring "panic among cosmologists" -- that is, the scientists who study the origins of the universe.

This is simply not true. The JWST has not provided evidence disproving the Big Bang theory, and cosmologists aren't panicking. Why, then, are we seeing viral social media posts and funky headlines that suggest the Big Bang didn't happen at all?

To answer that question, and show why we should be skeptical of claims like this, we need to understand where the idea came from.

Where did "the Big Bang didn't happen" come from?

It all started with an article at The Institute of Art and Ideas, a British philosophical organization, on Aug. 11. The piece was written by Eric Lerner, who has long argued against the Big Big theory. He even wrote a book titled The Big Bang Never Happened in 1991. 

This provocatively headlined article at IAI is also related to an upcoming debate Lerner is participating in, run by the IAI, dubbed "Cosmology and the Big Bust." 

Lerner's article gathered steam across social media, being shared widely on Twitter and across Facebook, over the last week. It makes sense why it's caught fire: It's a controversial idea that upends what we think we know about the cosmos. In addition, it's tied to a new piece of technology in the James Webb telescope, which is seeing parts of the universe we've never been able to see before. Including Webb as the news hook here suggests there's new data which overturns a long-standing theory.

Don't get me wrong -- there is new and intriguing data emerging from the JWST. Just not the kind that would undo the Big Bang theory. Most of this new data trickles down to the public in the form of scientific preprints, articles that are yet to undergo peer review and land on repositories like arXiv, or popular press articles.

Lerner's piece uses some of the early JWST studies to attempt to dismiss the Big Bang theory. What's concerning is how it misconstrues early JWST data to suggest that astronomers and cosmologists are worried the well-established theory is incorrect. There are two points early in Lerner's article which show this:

  • He points to a preprint with the word "Panic!" in its title, calling it a "candid exclamation."
  • He misuses a quote from Allison Kirkpatrick, an astronomer at the University of Kansas. 

The first point is just a case of Lerner missing the pun. The full title of the paperis "Panic! At the Disks: First Rest-frame Optical Observations of Galaxy Structure at z>3 with JWST in the SMACS 0723 Field." The first author of that preprint, astronomer Leonardo Ferreira, is clearly riffing on popular 2000s emo band Panic! at the Disco with his title. It's a tongue-in-cheek reference, not a cosmological crisis. 

As for the second point, Lerner takes this quote from Allison Kirkpatrick, which comes from a Nature news article published on July 27:

"Right now I find myself lying awake at three in the morning and wondering if everything I've done is wrong."

This cherrypicked quote isn't in direct reference to the Big Bang theory. Rather, Kirkpatrick is reckoning with the first data coming back from the JWST about the early evolution of the universe. It's true there are some puzzles for astronomers to solve here, but, so far, they aren't rewriting the beginning of the universe to do so. Kirkpatrick has stated her quotes were misused and even changed her Twitter name to "Allison the Big Bang happened Kirkpatrick."   

"We as scientists have a responsibility to educate the public, and I take that responsibility very seriously," Kirkpatrick told CNET. "Deliberately misleading the public makes it difficult for them to trust real scientists and to know fact from fiction."

In addition, Lerner's article claims that his ideas are being censored by the scientific establishment, and later he also points to his theory being important to develop fusion energy on Earth. It's no coincidence the same paragraph links to LPPFusion, a company run by Lerner aimed at developing clean energy technologies.

Why does this matter?

One of the chief reasons the Big Bang theory stands up is because of the cosmic microwave background. This was discovered in 1964. In short, the CMB is the radiation leftover from the Big Bang, right when the universe began and scientists have been able to "see" it with satellites that can detect that lingering radiation. 

So to bolster evidence the Big Bang theory is incorrect, you'd need to explain the CMB another way. Lerner's dismissive of the CMB, and his proposal for the observation has been disproven in the past. If you're interested in further arguments against Lerner's hypotheses and why the claims don't add up, I recommend checking out Brian Keating's recent YouTube video. Keating is a cosmologist at the University of California, San Diego, and dives into a bit more detail about the limits of Lerner's arguments.

It's also important to note Webb is not built to see and undertake new analyses of the CMB itself. The telescope can't "see" that far back in time. However, it will look at an epoch a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. What it finds there will almost certainly reshape our views on the early universe, galaxies and the evolution of the cosmos. But it's disingenuous to claim the early images and study results have contradicted the Big Bang theory.

Kirkpatrick notes JWST's images actually do the opposite. She said they "support the Big Bang model because they show us that early galaxies were different than the galaxies we see today -- they were much smaller!"

Science is about making incremental progress in our understanding, coming to increasingly stronger conclusions based on observations. The observations astrophysicists and cosmologists have made over decades line up with the Big Bang theory. They don't line up anywhere near as neatly if we use Lerner's alternative theory. That's doesn't mean scientists won't find evidence overturning the Big Bang theory. They just might! But, for now, it remains our best theory for explaining what we see. 

Scientific theories can -- and should -- be challenged by well-reasoned scientists presenting highly detailed and thoughtful arguments. This is not one of those times. And that means, despite the headlines, the Big Bang did happen. 

Updated Aug 22: Added Kirkpatrick's quotes.“

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