The history of our universe may be beginning to unfold

The James Webb Space Telescope captured a high-resolution image in near-infrared light of a pair of young, actively forming stars known as Herbig-Harrow 46/47 (Space Telescope Science Institute).

Last year, the space telescope shortly after James Webb As space began to transmit impressive images of planets and nebulae, astronomers were surprised, but had to admit that something was wrong. Eight months later, based on binocular exposures, Signs are beginning to emerge that we may need to reconsider fundamental aspects of the origin and development of the universe..

He Web TelescopeAn instrument with unmatched observational powers launched as a collaborative project in late 2021 PotThe European Space Agency And this Canadian Space Agencyis in a state of flux In fact, the mission goes back in time to the first stars and galaxies. But one of his first major discoveries was uncomfortably exciting: He discovered the existence of fully formed galaxies long before what was possible according to the so-called standard model of the galaxy. Cosmology.

According to the standard model, almost all research in this field is based on a fixed and precise sequence of events that occurred. big bang: To begin with, gravity attracted dense regions of cool cosmic gas that grew into stars and black holes; Then gravity pulled the stars together to form galaxies.

However, data from Web Telescope revealed that Some of the most massive galaxies formed very quickly, in the shortest possible time, at least according to the standard model. This is no small contradiction. A discovery such as the appearance of parents and their children in a story when grandparents are still children.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. There are other recent cases where the evidence supporting science’s basic understanding of the universe has turned out to be alarmingly inconsistent.

Notice how fast the universe is expanding.. This is a fundamental fact in cosmology – it’s called a constant Hubble—; However, scientists have not been able to agree on a number. There are two main ways to calculate it: one involves measurements of the early universe (eg Web Telescope); Another is measurements of nearby stars in the modern universe. Despite decades of work, these two methods give different answers.

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At first, scientists believed that this discrepancy would resolve itself as data improved. The problem persists even though the data has become more accurate. Now, new data from Web Telescope They exacerbated the problem. This trend indicates a flaw in the model, not the data.

There are two serious problems with the static model Cosmology That should be worry enough. But the model has already been modified several times over the past half century, necessary and appropriate changes to fit the best available data, but in light of the problems we now face, it may seem too convenient to skeptics.

Physicists and astronomers begin to sense that something is terribly wrong. It’s not just that some of us believe that the standard model needs to be rethought Cosmology; It will also require us to change the way we think about some fundamental aspects of our universe, a conceptual revolution that will have implications far beyond the world of science.

Standard model CosmologyA powerful combination of hard-earned data and sophisticated abstract mathematical physics, it is considered a triumph of human ingenuity. Its origins can be traced back to the 1920s Edwin Hubble The first evidence we have is that the universe is expanding big bang Then, in 1964, radio astronomers discovered what was called Microwave background radiation, the “fossil” radiation that came to us shortly after the universe began to expand. This discovery allowed us to know that The early universe was a hot, dense soup of subatomic particles It has, since then, continued to cool and become less dense.

In the last 60 years, the Cosmology It has become increasingly accurate in its ability to interpret finer data about the universe. However, to achieve such precision, astrophysicists had to postulate the existence of elements in the universe, for which there was no direct evidence. The current Standard Model holds that “normal” matter—people, planets, and everything else we can see—makes up only about 4 percent of the universe. The rest is invisible stuff called dark matter and dark energy (27 and 68 percent, respectively).

The Cosmic Inflation An example of another eccentric fit done on a standard model. According to this theory, in 1981 it was designed to resolve the contradictions derived from the previous version big bangThe early universe expanded exponentially second after second big bang. Cosmic inflation solves some problems, but creates others. In particular, according to most versions of the theory, instead of having one universe, ours is just one universe in a multiverse, countless universes, others not only practically, but also worlds that may always be unobservable to us. principle.

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There is nothing inherently dubious about these aspects of the standard model. Scientists often find good indirect evidence for things we can’t see, such as superdense singularities inside black holes. But confusing data follows Web Telescope On the formation of galaxies and the deterioration of the standard problem HubbleYou can’t blame anyone if you start wondering if the sample tune is wrong.

At this point, a familiar story about how science works is often invoked to assuage concerns. says: Researchers think they have the right theory, but new data shows they’re wrong. With determination, scientists roll up their sleeves, go to their whiteboards, come up with new ideas, and allow their theory to better adapt to the evidence.

It’s a story of humility and triumph, and we scientists love to tell it. Besides, the same could happen in this case. Maybe that’s the solution to the problems Web Telescope Only cosmologists challenge us to find something new “dark” that will allow our picture of the universe to continue to be consistent with the best cosmological data.

However, there is another possibility. We may be at a point where a radical departure from the Standard Model is required, forcing us to change the way we think about the building blocks of the universe and perhaps the nature of space and time..

The Cosmology It is not like other sciences. It’s not like studying rats in a maze or boiling chemicals in a beaker in a lab. The universe is everything; There is only one, which we cannot see from outside. You can’t put it in a box on a table or do controlled experiments. All inclusive, The Cosmology It forces scientists to ask questions about the context in which science operates: the nature of time, the nature of space, the nature of law-like order, the role of observers making observations.

These particular questions do not appear in most “conventional” sciences (although one encounters equally dark questions in consciousness science and quantum physics). Working so closely to the boundary between science and philosophy, cosmologists are constantly haunted by the ghosts of fundamental assumptions invisible in the tools we use, such as the assumption that scientific laws do not change over time.

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But it’s such an assumption that we have to start asking questions to find out what’s wrong with the Standard Model. A possibility, raised by physicists Lee Smolin and philosopher Roberto Mangabeera Unger, are the laws of physics They can It evolves and changes over time. Different laws may compete for their effectiveness. A more radical possibility, analyzed by physicists John wheeled vehicleEvery observation affects the future and past history of the universe (wheeled vehicleWorking to understand the paradoxes of quantum mechanics, he envisioned a “participatory universe” in which each observation was, in a sense, a new creation).

To begin with, yet We don’t know how these revolutionary revisions of our science will help us better understand the cosmological data that baffles us. (Part of the difficulty is that the data are shaped by the theoretical assumptions of those who collect it.) Taking a step back and rethinking such fundamental aspects of our science must be an act of faith.

However, a revolution may end up being the best path to progress. This was the case in the past with scientific advances such as Copernicus’ heliocentrism and the theory of evolution. Darwin and relativity Einstein. These three theories ended up having a huge cultural influence: threatened our sense of our special place in the universeThey challenged our intuition that we are fundamentally different from other animals and raised our confidence in common sense notions about the flow of time. Any scientific revolution we envision will have comparable effects on our understanding of ourselves.

Philosopher Robert Gries wrote that Scientific questions may not be answered and doing science requires philosophy. It is not yet clear whether this is necessary to deal with the crisis of Cosmology. But if more tweaking and tweaking isn’t enough, we may need not just a new history of the universe, but a new way of telling stories about it.

This article appeared first The New York Times.

* Adam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester and author of the forthcoming “The Little Book of Aliens.” Marcelo Gleiser is a professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College and author of “The Dawn of a Mindful Universe: A Manifesto for Humanity’s Future.”

Eden Hayes

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