The JWST’s shot of the SMACS 0723 galaxy cluster. Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI
- After NASA released the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope, Eric J. Lerner repeated his infamous claim that the Big Bang didn’t really happen.
- Numerous astronomers and astrophysicists have rebutted Lerner’s claim, accusing it of opportunism, being thin on proof and supported by inconsistent arguments.
- Lerner has been met with similar rebuttals and derision in the past for the same claim but they haven’t stopped him from repeating his views.
- In the latest instance, astrophysicists whose work Lerner cited in support of his claim have also distanced themselves from him.
The images from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) never fail to impress people anywhere in the world. Even those who usually have their eyes glued to cynical primetime debates on news channels on the TV spared a minute or two to behold those spectacular images, like that of the SMACS 0723 galaxy cluster shown above.
For astronomy, the images and data gathered by the JWST make for a treasure trove from which astronomers and astrophysics expect to reap many benefits for many years to come. So don’t be surprised if you come across more reports claiming to have discovered something incredible soon. For example, scientists recently spectroscopically confirmed the presence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of a hot gas-giant planet orbiting a Sun-like star some 700 light years away, thanks to JWST.
But not all reports based on the telescope’s findings are equally legitimate. For example, a particularly dubious claim turned up recently in an article by science writer and independent researcher Eric J. Lerner. In the article, Lerner claimed that the JWST data seems to indicate that the Big Bang did not happen. It left many people on the internet scratching their heads.
Lerner has written a few hundred articles as a writer and he is also a scientist of good repute, having co-authored some papers on plasma research in The Astrophysical Journal and the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. He is currently the chief scientist at LPP Fusion, a company that aims to produce clean energy using nuclear fusion. This said, Lerner is perhaps best known in the science media for his 1991 book The Big Bang Never Happened.
Lerner is a proponent of a universe that is static and immortal, and which in turn invites the intervention of a divine creator. This wasn’t an original idea at the time he published his book. Eminent physicists in the 1950s and the 1960s also proposed that our universe is static, based on models of their own.
Fred Hoyle, the astrophysicist famous for explaining how fusion reactions in stars create chemical elements, advanced the steady state theory, the only serious rival theory to the Big Bang theory in his time. Even Hannes Alfven, whose pioneering work in magnetohydrodynamics won him the Nobel Prize for physics in 1970, proposed a universe where an alternative explanation other than the Big Bang could supposedly account for the universe’s expansion.
The Big Bang model purports to explain how the present universe, with all its galaxies distributed homogenously in all directions, exists. The model predicts that the universe evolved from a super-hot, super-dense state to its current form. The volume of experimental evidence for this idea has grown since the 1960s.
A particularly important piece is the cosmic microwave background – a sea of microwave radiation pervading the universe. Physicists believe it is radiation leftover from our universe when it was just 380,000 years old. Observations made by the Cosmic Background Explorer, the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe and the Planck space missions have all also contributed to legitimising the Big Bang model among cosmologists.
Simultaneously, Hoyle’s steady state theory, Alfven’s model and other similar models have faded away from the scientific discourse.
In line with this history, physicists were quick to rebut Lerner’s claims in The Big Bang Never Happened. In a series of articles, astrophysicist and Big-Bang proponent Edward L. Wright challenged Lerner’s idea on multiple counts. In response to a 2004 article, physicist and science communicator Sean Carroll called Lerner a “crackpot”.
The negative feedback and derision hasn’t dissuaded Lerner from continuing to publish his views. His articles also continue to harbour a cascade of inconsistencies.
In Lerner’s article published this month vis-à-vis the JWST, he claimed that the galaxies the telescope had observed were “too smooth, too old, too small” to allow for the Big Bang. He also contended that the universe appears to have had too many disc galaxies when it was 400 million years old.
But Lerner’s arguments are pointed at galaxy formation theory and not the Big Bang model – prompting many physicists to call his unqualified extrapolation opportunistic.
The Big Bang model as we know it today was born out of the mathematics in the general theory of relativity as it pertained to the early universe. Stephen Hawking was the first to show this, in his PhD thesis published in 1966.
So to deny the Big Bang is, in the absence of extraordinary evidence, to effectively deny the universe’s evolution. Axiomatically, the Big Bang hypothesis has been able to survive several cosmological tests because it is able to account for multiple observations without simultaneously denying others.
Once Lerner’s article was published online, even those astrophysicists whose work Lerner cited were quick to distance themselves from his words.
One such, Allison Kirkpatrick of the University of Kansas, said Lerner had taken a statement from her article in Nature out of context. She also renamed her Twitter profile “Allison the Big Bang happened Kirkpatrick”.
Lerner also cited a preprint paper whose title began “Panic! At the Disks…”. One of its authors, Leonard Ferreira, an astrophysicist at the University of Nottingham, tweeted calling those who misused the title “dishonest” and “opportunistic”. It was an apparent reference to the band Panic! at the Disco.
In their paper, Ferreira and his colleagues studied the JWST’s shot of the SMACS 0723 galaxy cluster in more detail, having identified over 280 galaxies in that picture alone. The key result in their paper was the observation of several more disc galaxies than the Hubble space telescope had captured in its image of the cluster, and the lack of morphological evolution1 of galaxies in the relative past.
These results indicated a greater degree of complexity than expected, and Ferreira et al. wrote that galaxy evolution theory needs to be updated to account for their findings. The paper is not concerned with the Big Bang model, however.
Astrophysicists and popular YouTubers Rebecca Smethurst and Michael Merrifield also supported Ferreira & co.’s findings in separate videos. Smethurst, who also has a book on black holes coming up, called Lerner’s position “pseudo-science”.
Finally, in her opposition to Lerner’s argument, physicist and science communicator Sabine Hossenfelder took a different, probably more instructive route. Hossenfelder asked whether the Big Bang theory could actually be falsified. After all, she argued, the model was born by taking the general theory of relativity and extrapolating it to the time of the singularity. As she wrote:
“… the Big Bang singularity is a mathematical artefact and not what really happened. It probably just means that Einstein’s theory stops working and we should be using a better one. We think that’s what’s going on, because when singularities occur in other cases in physics, that’s the reason. For example, when a drop of water pinches off a tap, then the surface curvature of the water has a singular point. But this happens only if we describe the water as a smooth fluid. If we would take into account that it’s actually made of atoms, then the singularity would go away.
Something like that is probably also why we get the Big Bang singularity. We should be using a better theory, one that includes the quantum properties of space. Unfortunately, we don’t have the theory for this calculation. And so, all that we can reliably say is: If we extrapolate Einstein’s equations back in time, we get the Big Bang singularity.”
Why then should we believe the Big Bang model to be true? The answer is simple, as Hossenfelder spells out: we know the equations of the general theory of relativity to be correct based on other tests, and a combination of the equations with some other assumptions correctly predicts a great many things about the universe.
Hossenfelder also writes, and astrophysicists in general agree, that we can’t know what could have happened before the Big Bang. Scientists have different ideas but they are purely speculation – weaker in substance, ultimately, than the claim that our universe has evolved for the last 13.7 billion years from a Big Bang event.
Note: This article was updated at 11:04 am on August 29, 2022, to state that galaxy evolution theory needs to be updated, not ‘corrected’ as was stated earlier.
Karthik Vinod has an integrated master’s degree in astrophysics from the University of Manchester and is currently enrolled as an MSc student in science and technology studies at University College London.
The evolution of the galaxies’ shapes and structures↩