February 19, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

Distant Galaxy Surprises Astronomers

Using the Hubble Space Telescope viewing a distant galaxy cluster as a gravitational lens, astronomers detected a new record-holder: a galaxy bright with stars almost as old as the big bang.  The story on Science Daily called this a galaxy, with redshift 7.6, a “strong contender for the galaxy distance record.”
    According to theory, stars did not form till the end of the “dark ages” about 400,000 years after the big bang.  Young galaxies emerging from the fog of particles might have had enough energy to evaporate the fog and bring the first stars to light, the article says.  Still, to see a galaxy so soon after the dark ages was unexpected.  An astronomer from UC Santa Cruz said, “We certainly were surprised to find such a bright young galaxy 13 billion years in the past.”  The current age estimate for the universe is 13.7 billion years.
    The report was also posted on PhysOrg.  See this other PhysOrg article for a gallery of Hubble gravitational-lens images.

The measurements are indirect and highly theory-laden.  The light astronomers measure exists in the present: here at our retinas on earth.  Where it came from, and how long it took to get here, depends on theories and models that cannot be tested directly.  How are you going to recreate a big bang and watch stars form?  Are you going to wait 400,000 years to see if it happens according to your theory?
    As with fossils in evolution, spectra from space are data points that mean nothing till inserted into a paradigm.  Despite the confidence with which the theory was explained in the article, this discovery produces as many problems as it answers.  Astronomers need to explain how diffuse fog became clumpy, and condensed into a hierarchy of unlikely objects: galaxies and stars.  Astronomers appear to have the same problem as the biologists: a kind of cosmic Cambrian explosion.
    The ability to tell stories (fability, 01/16/2007 commentary) about how this all worked out somehow is not the same as knowledge.  The theory might be correct, but how would they know?  A survey of the history of scientific pronouncements that were later overturned is not encouraging.  The most significant data point in the article may, in fact, be the surprised look on their faces.

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Categories: Astronomy, Cosmology

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