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The Webb Telescope Has Left Astronomers’ Theories About the Universe in Shambles

The James Webb Telescope photos getting piped back to earth from the James Webb Telescope have provided humanity with the most spectacular photos of our universe yet. Each new image contains some mind-exploding feature, the exact details of which seem designed to turn you into a puddle of goo. And apparently, it’s also exploding some scientists’ ideas about how the universe works.

“The models just don’t predict this,” Garth Illingworth, an astronomer at the University of California at Santa Cruz, told the Washington Post. “How do you do this in the universe at such an early time? How do you form so many stars so quickly?”

What Illingworth is taking about is the shape and structure of the most distant galaxies the Webb can observe. These galaxies are thought to be very old — older than our own — and were going to provide scientists with some new clues about what the early universe looked like. The theory was that these galaxies would be small, misshapen and sort of chaotic. Instead, they’re largely big, bright and orderly.

“We thought the early universe was this chaotic place where there’s all these clumps of star formation, and things are all a-jumble,” Dan Coe of the Space Telescope Science Institute told the Post. But that just doesn’t seem to be the case. At least, not to the degree most astronomers expected.

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This means a certain amount of reevaluation is in order, but that’s the nature of science. Scientists are used to hypotheses falling apart under the weight of new data, and the Webb Telescope is bringing in so much revolutionary data so quickly that astronomers are in an unusual position of information overload. We are literally learning too much too quickly to contextualize it all, and it will take time to rework previous theories. But that’s the fun part.

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