“Massive” Webb Space Telescope Discovery Defies Prior Understanding of the Universe

Spiral Galaxy Artwork

Recent astronomical observations have revealed the existence of six huge galaxies in the early universe, which challenges the previous understanding of galaxy formation. Joel Leja, an assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State, who analyzed the light emitted by these galaxies, said that these objects are much more massive than what scientists had anticipated. Previously, it was assumed that only small and young galaxies would exist at this stage of the universe’s development, but the discovery of fully grown galaxies suggests that the understanding of the early universe needs to be revised.

Six massive galaxies discovered in the early universe are upending what scientists previously understood about the origins of galaxies in the universe. 

“These objects are way more massive​ than anyone expected,” said Joel Leja, assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State, who modeled light from these galaxies. “We expected only to find tiny, young, baby galaxies at this point in time, but we’ve discovered galaxies as mature as our own in what was previously understood to be the dawn of the universe.”

Using the first dataset released from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, the international team of scientists discovered objects as mature as the Milky Way when the universe was only 3% of its current age, about 500-700 million years after the Big Bang. The telescope is equipped with infrared-sensing instruments capable of detecting light that was emitted by the most ancient stars and galaxies. Essentially, the telescope allows scientists to see back in time roughly 13.5 billion years, near the beginning of the universe as we know it, Leja explained.

“This is our first glimpse back this far, so it’s important that we keep an open mind about what we are seeing,” Leja said. “While the data indicates they are likely galaxies, I think there is a real possibility that a few of these objects turn out to be obscured supermassive black holes. Regardless, the amount of mass we discovered means that the known mass in stars at this period of our universe is up to 100 times greater than we had previously thought. Even if we cut the sample in half, this is still an astounding change.”

Massive Early Galaxy Candidates

Images of six candidate massive galaxies, seen 500-800 million years after the Big Bang. One of the sources (bottom left) could contain as many stars as our present-day Milky Way, but is 30 times more compact. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, I. Labbe (Swinburne University of Technology). Image processing: G. Brammer (Niels Bohr Institute’s Cosmic Dawn Center at the University of Copenhagen)

In a paper published today (February 22, 2023) in the journal Nature, the researchers show evidence that the six galaxies are far more massive than anyone expected and call into question what scientists previously understood about galaxy formation at the very beginning of the universe.

“The revelation that massive galaxy formation began extremely early in the history of the universe upends what many of us had thought was settled science,” said Leja. “We’ve been informally calling these objects ‘universe breakers’ — and they have been living up to their name so far.”

Leja explained that the galaxies the team discovered are so massive that they are in tension with 99% percent of models for cosmology. Accounting for such a high amount of mass would require either altering the models for cosmology or revising the scientific understanding of galaxy formation in the early universe — that galaxies started as small clouds of stars and dust that gradually grew larger over time. Either scenario requires a fundamental shift in our understanding of how the universe came to be, he added.

“We looked into the very early universe for the first time and had no idea what we were going to find,” Leja said. “It turns out we found something so unexpected it actually creates problems for science. It calls the whole picture of early galaxy formation into question.”

On July 12, NASA released the first full-color images and spectroscopic data from the James Webb Space Telescope. The largest infrared telescope in space, Webb was designed to see the genesis of the cosmos, its high resolution allowing it to view objects too old, distant or faint for the Hubble Space Telescope.

“When we got the data, everyone just started diving in and these massive things popped out really fast,” Leja said. “We started doing the modeling and tried to figure out what they were, because they were so big and bright. My first thought was we had made a mistake and we would just find it and move on with our lives. But we have yet to find that mistake, despite a lot of trying.”

Leja explained that one way to confirm the team’s finding and alleviate any remaining concerns would be to take a spectrum image of the massive galaxies. That would provide the team data on the true distances, and also the gasses and other elements that made up the galaxies. The team could then use the data to model a clearer of picture of what the galaxies looked like, and how massive they truly were.

“A spectrum will immediately tell us whether or not these things are real,” Leja said. “It will show us how big they are, how far away they are. What’s funny is we have all these things we hope to learn from James Webb and this was nowhere near the top of the list. We’ve found something we never thought to ask the universe — and it happened way faster than I thought, but here we are.”

Reference: “A population of red candidate massive galaxies ~600 Myr after the Big Bang” by Ivo Labbé, Pieter van Dokkum, Erica Nelson, Rachel Bezanson, Katherine A. Suess, Joel Leja, Gabriel Brammer, Katherine Whitaker, Elijah Mathews, Mauro Stefanon and Bingjie Wang, 22 February 2023, Nature.
DOI: 10.1038/s41586-023-05786-2

The other co-authors on the paper are Elijah Mathews and Bingjie Wang of Penn State, Ivo Labbe of the Swinburne University of Technology, Pieter van Dokkum of Yale University, Erica Nelson of the University of Colorado, Rachel Bezanson of the University of Pittsburgh, Katherine A. Suess of the University of California and Stanford University, Gabriel Brammer of the University of Copenhagen, Katherine Whitaker of the University of Massachusetts and the University of Copenhagen, and Mauro Stefanon of the Universitat de Valencia.

13 Comments on "“Massive” Webb Space Telescope Discovery Defies Prior Understanding of the Universe"

  1. It’s seems arrogant for scientists to continually be “totally surprised” by revelations that go beyond “prior understanding”!! A far better attitude might be to “expect” to be surprised by new and wonderful discoveries that add to or require complete revisions of former theories!!

  2. Very informative.

  3. “Leja explained that the galaxies the team discovered are so massive that they are in tension with 99% percent of models for cosmology. Accounting for such a high amount of mass would require either altering the models for cosmology or revising the scientific understanding of galaxy formation in the early universe.”
    The answer is: Genesis 1:1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
    No naturalistic explanation can adequately answer the questions raised by these findings.

  4. Howard Jeffrey Bender, Ph.D. | February 23, 2023 at 7:21 am | Reply

    If we have multiple Big Bang/Big Crunch cycles, then if these galaxies were the last to be crunched, just before the next Big Bang, then they could remain intact. After all, the Big Bang is not really an explosion, just an expansion of the universe. Using a String Theory view, the brane surrounding the universe would be expanding, taking the matter/energy inside of it along for the ride. Specifics for the physical creation of the universe can be found by searching YouTube for “Creating Universes – A String Theory Way”

  5. Sorry Leja – the only settled science is that of global warming.

  6. things/mass can not move around?
    –> but mass must ALWAYS move outward?
    next enity after Webb will document.

  7. I’m sure I’m not the only person out there that isn’t surprised at all. In fact, I would have been surprised to see anything else because I realized years ago that the Big Bang and the ridiculous idea of Inflation were contortions of scientists trying to save dead theories. Plasma Cosmology and String Theory are better explanations by far, but letting go of failed ideas like a flat Earth is hard and most of us have been on the wrong road for over 100 years now. Thanks to the JWST we have even more scientific evidence to prove it.

  8. The article, which is cool, notes the Big Bang as fact, when in fact, it is an unproven theory. One of many, but to claim one theory as fact is disingenuous to mankind.

  9. the only thing we really know is actually how little we really know!

  10. There are no facts in science, only theories which are the best attempts to explain observations.

  11. I think it’s a matter of perspective. If we are looking at those galaxies and they are as developed as ours is now, it would mean that if they were looking at our galaxy back then, we would not yet exist. So we are the beginning of our time and they are the future. Makes sense to me.

  12. It seems scientists are constantly surprised that new and increasingly sophisticated technologies / computing power / etc., causes such disruptive changes in the most current theories and models in various fields. Right now, thanks to the massive technological leap the JWST represents over Hubble and any Earth bound telescopes, are mostly occurring in the fields of cosmology, astronomy, astrophysics, and related disciplines.

    Why this is such a surprising aspect our advancing capabilities strikes me as profoundly bizarre. While it seems like scientists and doctors and engineers and experts in other fields should expect not only new discoveries that change our understanding of certain aspects of existing theories or upend them entirely, but paradigm shifting discoveries that totally upend entire disciplines and major areas of our “knowledge.”

    Especially since so many theories such as dark matter, dark energy, etc. were invented to explain gaps in our understanding in order to maintain prevailing cosmological theories in light of new information and discoveries. And sure, while many of these theoretical models would seem to work well for explaining many aspects of our current system of cosmology, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they actually hold water.

    Newtonian mechanics and his “laws” of physics very gracefully explained physics and relationships and interactions at our level (sizes, velocities, spans of time we can grasp, and other aspects of reality we are able to observe and measure), when dealing with the very small (the physics of particles smaller than an atom, that deal with the quantum realm, or quantum physics) or deal with the very large (clusters of galaxies, the universe as a whole, potential multiverse theories) as well as the very ancient (the state of things in the first moments after the Big Bang to several hundred thousand years after the Big Bang – and even when trying to solve the many mysteries surrounding the early universe, most cosmologists’ first instinct is to invent some explanation, no matter how strange, unlikely, or unique, so that they can fit the behaviors and apparent occurrences of the earliest stages of the universe into our current understanding, so they make sense within the confines of our most current cosmological theories), Newtonian Mechanics – the foundation and majority of “classical physics” – quite literally breaks down and, as it turns out, is almost entirely incorrect, regardless of how elegantly it seems to work at the anthropomorphic scale of matter and energy.

    We still rely on Newtonian Mechanics despite knowing that it’s mostly incorrect, because it works when dealing with physical phenomena and relationships at the human scale. When 20th century quantum physics caused the collapse of our classical understanding of, well, almost everything, it was a totally mind blowing reality for the entire field of physics. And yet, because most of our computations and common physics problems and equations deal with reality at the anthropomorphic scale, we continue to use “classical” Newtonian Mechanics since the alternative is far too complex.

    It would seem to me that discoveries such as this would convince most scientists that, objectively, it’s likely that very little of our “knowledge” & “understanding” of reality is accurate, and that we probably only “know” a very small fraction of the actual truths behind reality, and only continue to use what we think we know because it works well enough for our purposes.

    But contrary to this basic premise that likely affects almost all of our “knowledge,” most people seem to go on believing that they “know” a majority of the things that relate to their disciplines, when we actually “know” much closer to absolutely nothing about our universe and our reality than we do about “everything.” And yet the human brain is so repulsed by such facts, that it convinces us that we know a great deal more than we actually do.

    Just as the brain “invents” an entire range of the color spectrum between red and violet, or Magenta, which in reality is an impossible range of colors. They have no corresponding wavelength on the visual spectrum, & are thus imaginary colors, yet our brains have created an entire range of illusions that correspond to this imaginary range.

    Our brains are remarkably adept at inventing aspects of reality where there are gaps in our perception or understanding, or when our brains really don’t want to accept what we perceive in many instances, & so either creates illusions or oversimplifications to fill in even large gaps in our understanding, or our perceptions that repulse our overall experience – for example, inventing an entire range of red-violet colors that have no corresponding wavelength on the visible spectrum and are thus impossible or imaginary colors. Mostly because our brains are repulsed by the fact that combining actual wavelengths of red and violet light would, in reality, give us a result in the green range of visible light – but the very notion that red and violet should produce green is so absurd to our overall understanding of color and our rational minds, that our brains quite literally invented the most logical range of colors that should be created from the combination of red and violet – despite the fact that the entire red-violet range of colors, or the magentas, have no corresponding wavelengths in the spectrum of visual light, and therefore quite literally don’t exist.

    There are numerous other examples of this phenomenon in action, however, in the interest of saving you a great deal of time, won’t go into the most basic and important illusion our brains create, and that is the very existence of time as we know it. Given the constant state of flux or change in reality as we perceive it, as well as our need for a variable to describe different rates of change, as well as a means of determining motion through space, our brains invented a very useful imaginary variable we call time.

    Whether time exists or is simply a very convenient illusion is still rather controversial in the scientific community, although the consensus of most rigorous scientific thought, is that time doesn’t exist. At the very least, not in any of the ways we most commonly believe it to exist.

    And outside of the scientific and philosophical communities, such a notion is do deeply in opposition to reality as we experience it, and especially to one of the most powerfully determinative, defining aspects of our entire system of personal routines as well as the fundamental principles upon which we base our collective social structures and interactions.

    Similarly, no biological organisms have the ability to produce blue pigmentation, yet there are a vast number of organisms – particularly in the reptile and bird families, aquatic and amphibious animals, both of the vertebrate and invertebrate varieties, a large number of insects, arachnids, etc., as well as seven different types of flowering plants, most notably and commonly observed being certain orchids, poppies, hydrangeas, morning glories, and corn-flowers, as well as the phenomenon of blue eyes in certain species of mammal, including humans.

    All of these organisms which appear to have blue patches or parts, or appear to be entirely blue, are in fact taking advantage of an optical illusion created by overlapping green and yellow (or brown, which technically falls within the yellow wavelength color spectrum). It is an incredibly powerful optical illusion, & doesn’t require much green and yellow/brown pigment. The particular shades of blue that appear, as well as the relative value of the color (darker or lighter in appearance), is a function of the different proportions of green pigment to yellow/brown pigment.

    Blue eyes in humans resulted from a relatively recent mutation in a single man who lived in the 12th century CE, most likely in Eastern Europe, Northern Macedonia, or Northern Turkey. While his eye color genes coded for hazel eyes, a rare mutation occurred causing incomplete, eye-only albinism. While most albinos have no pigment producing capabilities, allowing the blood vessels behind the eye to give the eyes a red or pinkish appearance, the mutation caused albinism only in his eye, and the was incomplete, which left some green and brown pigment, a larger amount of which would result in hazel eyes, but caused the same optical illusion that causes other organisms to appear partially, mostly, or near totally blue.

    His extremely novel eye color was extremely attractive to women wherever he went, and some genetic detective work seems to indicate he traveled quite extensively. Many people apparently even believed he was a Demi-God, or the son of God, or was otherwise an unnatural or supernatural entity. It’s estimated that he fathered over 1,000 children throughout Europe, the Middle East, parts of Asia, & possibly even some areas of Northern Africa that are now a part of the nations of Egypt & Ethiopia, as well as potentially other African countries along the Mediterranean coast. All blue eyed people are his descendants, but none of his immediate children shared his incredibly striking and unique eye color.

    However the recessive gene would pop up again in babies a few generations down the line. All of the above are just examples of why it’s bizarre that scientists are so “surprised” by paradigm shifting discoveries, especially when the history of science consists of a vast amount of huge discoveries that changed everything almost overnight. Especially when a prior state-of-the-art measurement and observation tool (like the Hubble ST) is replaced by a vastly technologically superior instrument like the JWST.

    Anybody worth their salt knows that we know next to nothing. Maybe, at best, we know 0.1% of actual, accurate, truths. But more likely it’s closer to 0.0000001% of the truth of our cosmos, our existence, ourselves, our world, our past, & our future.

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