Thursday Throughput: Yes, the Big Bang Happened
[ThTh1] The headline is startling: it claims that the new JWST data proves that the Big Bang Never Happened. But is it true? Has JWST disproven the Big Bang?
The piece is by Eric Lerner, who is not an astronomer but a researcher in plasma physics. Lerner has spent the last 30 years claiming that the Big Bang never happened (it’s the title of his 1991 book) in favor of plasma cosmology.
I won’t pretend to understand plasma cosmology in fine detail, but the basic idea was to explain a still outstanding problem in cosmology — why is there more matter than anti-matter in the universe? They should, in principle, be balanced. Plasma cosmology postulated that the universe had both matter and antimatter and was presented as an alternative to the expanding universe model. However, by the 1990’s, it was becoming clear that plasma cosmology had problems explaining the observational data and interest in it faded. Lerner has continued to tout it, however, and is now claiming that the new JWST results show that the Big Bang is wrong and vindicate his adherence to this theory.
The TL;DR version here is that Lerner still can not adequately explain the primary evidence in favor of the Big Bang, is misquoting both the JWST results and the scientists involved and has yet to present an alternative cosmology that works.
Now the long version.
Lerner’s claims are based on very early JWST data. Astronomers are getting their first look at some of the earliest galaxies in the Universe. In order to know where those galaxies are in the in the cosmos, they have to estimate their distances based on the presence or absence of those galaxies in JWST’s filters. However, JWST is still being calibrated and we know that, as a result, some of these distances have been significantly overestimated. What this means is that some galaxies we thought we were seeing as they were 13 billion years ago are actually being seen as they were 10 billion years ago. That is a huge difference, going from “cosmic dawn”, when galaxies were first forming, to “cosmic noon”, when galaxies were at their most active.
Moreover, none of these discoveries are inconsistent with the Big Bang. Even taken at face value, they show that galaxies may have grown and evolved much more rapidly than we thought. And, as a reminder, figuring out how galaxies evolved in the early universe is why we built JWST in the first place.
A perfect illustration of this is that Lerner quotes Kansas Astronomer Dr. Alison Kirkpatrick as saying, “Right now I find myself lying awake at three in the morning and wondering if everything I’ve done is wrong.” The implication is that she’s talking about the Big Bang. The reality, if you look at the actual Nature article that the quote comes from, is that she’s talking about galaxy evolution models which, again, is precisely what JWST was designed to test.1 Astronomers I’ve spoken to have said that, even if these preliminary results are born out, there is nothing wrong that can’t be fixed by adjusting the initial mass functions or the speed at which central black holes grow or other known factors.
In other words, this isn’t the Big Bang Theory being disproved. This is the Big Bang Theory being improved by new results from a region of the cosmos we’ve never had a chance to explore. I hate to keep repeating myself but … this is why we built the damn telescope.
Is it possible that we’re wrong about the Big Bang? No scientific theory is safe from disproof. But if you’re going to bring down the Big Bang Theory, you’re going to need a lot more than a misunderstanding of JWST data and a misquote of an astronomer. And you’re going to need a theory that explains the existing data better that our current one. Plasma cosmology doesn’t do that.
The strength of the Big Bang Theory is not that astronomers like it. In fact, the name “Big Bang” was coined by Hoyle to mock the theory because it was so in conflict with what scientists — including Einstein — believed at the time. The strength of the Big Bang Theory comes from the massive weight of evidence supporting it.
Fundamentally, the proof of the Big Bang is that it predicts a universe that evolves and changes with time. When we look at the distant universe, we see it as it was when the light was emitted. And so we should a universe that is different from our current universe. That is what we see: galaxies are smaller, black holes are more active, clusters are still forming and, ultimately, we can see the glow from 380,000 years after the Big Bang when the universe’s density had dropped enough for light to flow.
Going even further, the Big Bang Theory rests on seven pillars of evidence. Those pillars are:
- The Big Bang Theory correctly predicted the detection of the Cosmic Microwave Background — that faint microwave glow that represents the time when the universe became transparent to light (pictured above). Moreover those little lumps and bumps in the CMB — which are the beginnings of galaxies, clusters and large-scale structures — are consistent with theoretical expectations.
- When we look at distant galaxies, we find that they are moving away from us. And the further a galaxy is, the faster it is moving. This is consistent with an expanding universe. The General Theory of Relativity predicted this but it was so counterintuitive that Einstein spent years trying to fix this “flaw” in his theory. I explain the Hubble Flow in the short video below.
- The Big Bang Theory correctly reproduces the basic chemical composition of the universe: 75% hydrogen and 25% helium with almost all heavy elements having been forged by stars.
- The Big Bang Theory correctly predicts the large scale structure in the universe. When we look at millions of galaxies, we find that they are not distributed randomly, but form vast structure in the cosmos. This happens naturally when you have tiny inhomogeneities in the early universe and let gravity do its thing.
- The Big Bang correctly predicts that, over large enough scales, the universe is homogenous.
- Particle accelerator experiments, which can briefly reproduce the conditions of the early universe, are consistent with what we measure cosmologically.
- The Big Bang is consistent with our understanding of existing physical laws as well as other unrelated branches of astrophysics. For example, the age of the oldest stars is roughly consistent with the age of the universe.
That’s a pretty hefty trove of evidence based, not on one result, but on hundreds. It is the fusion of many many wildly different strains of investigation. It’s not perfect — there is a growing tension in the Hubble Constant and we still have no idea what Dark Energy is. But if the Big Bang and any alternative theory played basketball, it would be like the Harlem Globetrotters playing my junior year physics intramural team.
Now what about the alternative? In order to reject the theory of the Big Bang in favor of plasma cosmology, it’s not enough to accept one fringe theory. You have to accept a ziggurat of fringe theories. You have to assume that our understanding of almost everything is not only wrong, but fundamentally broken. Just a few examples:
- In order to explain away the cosmic expansion, you have to invoke “tired light”, the notion that light loses energy as it travels through the cosmos, thus making objects appear to be redder. The problem is that tired light relies on unproven physics, the phenomena has never been measured and it is inconsistent with other independent tests of the reality of cosmic expansion — such as the change in galaxy surface brightness with distance, the time dilation of distant sources and the shape of the CMB. Tired light has been invoked several times to explain inconvenient results — such as the first detection of the influence of dark energy. It has failed every time.
- In order to explain away Dark Matter, you have to invoke MOND — the ad-hoc unproven theory that the laws of motion change at very low accelerations. But the results from the Bullet Cluster were so convincing that even the advocates of MOND have admitted you can’t make it work without some Dark Matter.
- To explain away the CMB, you have to invoke a previously undetected intergalactic medium that is emitting the light. But this plows into huge problems with surveys of radio galaxies and no such medium is detected in front of bright galaxies. Moreover, we can see that the CMB photons interact with galaxy clusters, which only makes sense if it is coming from behind them.
- To explain away the abundances of hydrogen and helium in the universe, you have to assume that all the helium was generated by stars. But we know what kind of elements stellar explosions yield. They don’t release nearly enough helium to account for what we’re seeing.
I feel like I’m using a 2x4 to swat flies here — Lerner is a pushing theory that very few people accept on an obscure website. But his article is being touted by a lot of people and is finding its way into mainstream sources. My point here is not to “get” Lerner, it’s to show that the Big Bang Theory is supported by a gigantic weight of evidence. That it has been challenged on numerous occasions and those challenges have been found wanting. That alternative theories are numerous and continually run aground on observational evidence.
(Lerner’s article is being touted by a bunch of religious folks who think the Big Bang theory contradicts Genesis. This is ironic, because plasma cosmology was first designed by Alfven because he felt the Big Bang Theory had a whiff of creationism about it.)
The preliminary JWST results are very exciting and may, if confirmed, show that our models of how galaxies grow and evolve in the early universe have big, but fixable, problems. But nothing in the data even hints that Big Bang Theory is wrong. In fact, if you look at this issue from a few miles up, what do you see? An early universe that is shifted far into the red, that has galaxies very different from later eras and that is challenging — as all new data does — some of what we think we know. That’s not science failing. That’s science working.
[ThTh2] In actual JWST results, behold the newest image of Jupiter.
[ThTh3] While I’m ranting and raving, the CDC has recently changed their COVID guidelines to be generally less strict. This does not mean that the COVID deniers were right. What it means is that the guidelines we had at the beginning of the pandemic were based on a population that was immunologically naive — had never been exposed to COVID-19. Now, almost everyone has either had the illness or been vaccinated, so we all have some level of resistance. Not enough — it is still killing hundreds of Americans every day. But enough that the balance over what is safe and what isn’t has changed.
Fundamentally, though, we’re still in the same place. Get vaxxed. Get boosted. If you’re exposed, wear a mask. If you’re sick, isolate.
[ThTh4] And still on COVID, maybe it’s my imagination, but the anti-vax talking points keep getting dumber and dumber. A couple of weeks ago, the internet lit up with a claim that the vaccine caused miscarriage rates of 44%. It wasn’t true, as a simple check of the tables would have revealed. Or a check of the increased birth rate after the vaccines went live. Or a simple check into Naomi Wolf’s past, which has included incredibly dubious and mathematically challenged claims. They’ve also been making claims that the vaccine has killed hundreds of thousands (it hasn’t) and that Paxlovid is poison (it’s not).
I try to treat most people whose views differ from mine with respect. I don’t always succeed but it’s something I try to keep in mind. But anti-vaxxers … I won’t. This movement is pure luddite trash that revels in increased human suffering and death. I guess we should just be glad that burning witches has gone out of fashion.
[ThTh5] Why do astronomers keep producing sounds of the universe that sound like tortured souls? It’s what we do best.
The misconception that there is no sound in space originates because most space is a ~vacuum, providing no way for sound waves to travel. A galaxy cluster has so much gas that we've picked up actual sound. Here it's amplified, and mixed with other data, to hear a black hole! pic.twitter.com/RobcZs7F9e
— NASA Exoplanets (@NASAExoplanets) August 21, 2022
[ThTh6] Digging into an astronomical mystery.
[ThTh7] I once saw Shock Diamonds open for Slayer.
Astronomers have discovered one of the biggest black hole jets in the sky. Spanning more than a million light years from end to end, the jet shoots away from a black hole at almost the speed of light showing shock diamonds analogous to jet engines https://t.co/t1iJ2ZsGQl pic.twitter.com/G1Et6tUv2Y
— Massimo (@Rainmaker1973) August 20, 2022
[ThTh8] So you don’t believe an asteroid killed the dinosaurs, huh? Would you believe two?
[ThTh9] A lot of truth here
— Dr. Victoria Grinberg (@vicgrinberg) August 19, 2022
[ThTh10] Some new nuclear fusions results are confirmed although they are having trouble recreating the conditions of the experiment.
[ThTh11] Betelgeuse belched out a gigantic amount of material three years ago. But it’s feeling much better now.
[ThTh12] A really wonderful Twitter thread ranking species from most unlike us to most like us.
[ThTh13] The idea of teaching a waves class terrifies me. But this is a great demonstration. Just need a pool in the classroom.
A perfect standing wave on a computer controlled wave pool used for research in university pic.twitter.com/dYkCydIzk6
— Engineering (@ENGlNEERlNG_) August 10, 2022
[ThTh14] One of my pet peeves is people comparing health data from the United States to other countries without accounting for difference in how those outcomes are measured. Here’s a thread showing that no, Virginia, we do not have the same maternal mortality rate as Syria.
[ThTh15] While I supported COVID mitigations, there will be a price to pay. It’s especially bad in this case because it’s not clear that these mitigations — masking children in schools — helped a great deal. However, it’s also not clear that these setbacks are permanent. I have said to my colleagues that we’re going to be feeling the educational fallout of the pandemic for a decade. And I think a fallout would have happened without remote schooling or masking, just in a different form. I have yet to see anything to cause me to reconsider that opinion.
- He also notes that a new paper starts off with the world “Panic!”. He leaves out the next few words: “Panic! At the Disks”. It’s a joke, son.