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In some recent publications, plasma physicist and alternative cosmology advocate Eric Lerner has made the claim that recent JWST images disprove the conventional ΛCDM model of cosmological inflation, and hence that "The Big Bang didn't happen".

I would attempt to summarise his main arguments as:

  1. The conventional model predicts early galaxies should be larger and dimmer while the JWST images show them as much smaller and denser.
  2. Later galaxies should be more irregularly shaped under the conventional model, but instead they are smoother.
  3. The conventional model predicts much less helium and lithium than appears to be present in the early universe.

Lerner makes the claims that the only reason the Big Bang theory exists today is due to institutional inertia and suppression of dissenting views. He instead advocates for a different underlying cosmology, in which the structure of galaxies and the abundance of elements is caused predominantly by electromagnetic forces, mediated by plasma interactions, and that there was no early "hot dense phase" of the universe's existence. To my (untrained) view this looks like fringe science, very close to the widely debunked "Electric Universe" area of pseudoscience/nonsense.

Are these claims that JWST data cause a fundamental crisis for Big Bang cosmology accurate, or are they incorrect/overstated?

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    And another FYI: physicists are usually thrilled by new discoveries and challenges. It’s not necessarily considered a crisis. And another FYI: this is what JWST was build for. Aug 15, 2022 at 10:58
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    @HartmutBraun Agreed. I'm using the word "crisis" in the Kuhn sense as a natural part of the life-cycle of scientific paradigms, not in any sort of pejorative sense. I certainly think that a new cosmological model could start from JWST data. I'm just hoping an answer to this question may suggest whether this particular claim is respectable science, psuedo-scientific nonsense, or somewhere in-between. Aug 15, 2022 at 11:10
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    If someone tries to answer this, I hope that answer points out that Lerner's claim: 'One paper’s title begins with the candid exclamation: “Panic!”' is in bad faith. That paper title actually is a pun on Panic! At The Disco
    – Avery
    Aug 15, 2022 at 12:30
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    @Avery To be fair, there doesn't appear to be any reason for including that pun other than because the result is surprising. The "at the disks" part seems like it could apply to literally any paper about disk-shaped galaxies, and I can't see anything in the abstract for "panic" to be a simple linguistic pun on.
    – IMSoP
    Aug 15, 2022 at 13:14
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    So basically, there's scientific discourse happening? Wouldn't this be more suitable for the Physics stackexchange, then?
    – Schmuddi
    Aug 15, 2022 at 19:50

2 Answers 2

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Some of Lerner's previous complaints about the state of the art did and still do have validity, but his claims about the JWST are wildly out of proportion.

Lerner's ideas were presented in a 1991 book, and you can also see them on a web page on the wayback machine.

His biggest valid point in his past writings was about the lithium problem, which is that models of big bang nucleosynthesis can't reproduce the observed cosmological abundance of lithium-7 compared to lighter elements. A 2008 review paper shows that there was still a problem in that year, and as far as I can tell from the articles cited in the WP article, there has not been a solution since then. There are three ways that the problem could be resolved: (1) changing cosmological models, (2) finding some shortcoming in the models of the nuclear reactions, or (3) finding something wrong with the observational methods used to determine the actual cosmological abundances. All of these are currently on the table. However, even if the solution is #1, that isn't likely to mean throwing big bang cosmology out the window, it would probably mean tinkering with something else in the inputs to the big bang models, such as could come from new discoveries in particle physics.

A secondary point of Lerner's that is somewhat valid is his dislike of the inflation hypothesis. Inflation seemed like a great idea around 1980, and it seemed to solve several problems in cosmology. But after 40 years, there are serious problems with constructing inflationary models that work properly, and observational confirmation has been elusive. His complaints about inflation, unlike his complaints about dark matter and dark energy (see below), do therefore have some validity, but in my opinion he gives them undue weight. Inflation is an attempt to model the universe under exceptionally hot and dense conditions, and it doesn't seem surprising that we are groping in the dark to describe these conditions, since we can't test such models in particle accelerators or by observing the present-day universe.

Lerner's point about the JWST data has to do with models of the evolution of galaxies. The status of these models is that they're crude and uncertain, and they're contingent on the laws of physics. The models are not good enough that if they don't match observation you can conclude that there is something drastically wrong with the known laws of physics.

Ned Wright at UCLA has done a nice job of writing up the problems with Lerner's ideas. To be fair, Wright is responding to a book from 1991, and Lerner has tinkered with his ideas since then. But since Lerner's ideas lack a viable foundation in known science, he can tinker with them for decade after decade while being fundamentally immune to counter-arguments.

Lerner wants to get rid of the need for dark matter. The problem is that the evidence for dark matter comes from lots of different unrelated branches of astronomy. There is evidence for dark matter from galactic rotation curves, deuterium abundance, CMB fluctuations, dynamics of merging galaxy clusters, and gravitational lensing. Wright's page addresses this aspect of Lerner's claims.

There was at one time a viable scientific debate between big bang models and other models such as the Hoyle steady state model. This debate was pretty much ended by the detection of the cosmic microwave background in 1965 and its correct interpretation in the 1970's.

In addition to the CMB evidence, it is very difficult to avoid the necessity for a big bang based on our current understanding of general relativity (GR), combined with the currently observed expansion of the universe. It's unlikely that GR is so wildly wrong, given that gravitational wave observations have recently done such a spectacular job of verifying its predictions under conditions of very strong gravitational fields (and there are many weak-field tests, such as high-precision solar system tests). Lerner seems to believe, therefore, that he has to attack the evidence for cosmological expansion, which has been around for a century and is hard to escape based on the Hubble law. At the time when Wright wrote his analysis, Lerner seemed to want to use the tired light hypothesis to escape it, but there are many, many reasons why that won't work -- it hasn't been a viable idea since ca. 1940.

If one gives up on that and admits cosmological expansion + GR, then the Penrose singularity theorem leaves only one way to avoid a big bang, and that's to have a lot of dark energy (or other exotic matter with similar properties). You can then cook up models in which back-extrapolation from present conditions gives a "big bounce" due to the repulsion of the dark energy.

But observation by several different methods (supernovae, CMB, and BAO) securely establishes the density of dark energy at too low a value to prevent a big bang. On these issues, Lerner's web page seems to show a basic lack of knowledge of the relevant physics. He says, "The hypothetical dark energy field violates one of the best-tested laws of physics--the conservation of energy and matter, since the field produces energy at a titanic rate out of nothingness. To toss aside this basic conservation law in order to preserve the Big Bang theory is something that would never be acceptable in any other field of physics." This betrays a lack of understanding of how general relativity actually works, as well as being a completely wrong account of the history of cosmology.

GR dates to 1915. The empirical Hubble law was discovered in the same era, but it took a long time for it to be interpreted correctly in terms of the expansion of the universe. Expanding cosmological models using GR were first constructed mathematically in the 1920's and 1930's. These models didn't include dark energy, or what would then have been called a cosmological constant, because there was then no evidence for a nonzero cosmological constant. However, the basic structure of GR guarantees that the theory has conservation of energy only locally, not globally. So lack of global conservation of energy is not some extra hypothesis cooked up to allow a big bang; it was a feature of these models before astronomers were even thinking in terms of a big bang model. Dark energy was not invented in order to allow big bang cosmology. On the contrary, its density was conventionally set to zero during the entire period from about 1970, when the big bang theory became dominant, until about 1998, when supernova evidence came along. All through those decades, big bang cosmological models already lacked global conservation of energy, while retaining it locally; that didn't change one way or the other in the 21st century when dark energy was introduced.

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    This seems like a great answer ... if the question was on astronomy.stackexchange.com - and maybe it should be? But on this site it falls short, because there is a strong requirement for references, which you are mostly lacking.
    – IMSoP
    Aug 17, 2022 at 22:24
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No.

Mr. Lerner provides no evidence for the new JWST data causing a major crisis in cosmology, nor that "The Big Bang didn't happen"; other cosmologists disagree with his conclusions. The "panic" was a pun.

Along the way he misrepresents other scientist's reactions to the data, and misrepresents his own conclusions as if they came from other's papers.

The new JWST results have big implications for our theories of early galaxy formation. None of the papers references call into question the Big Bang. While Mr. Lerner published papers before the JWST data dropped, claiming he knew what it would find and drawing conclusions based on his speculation, I'm not aware of his having written any new papers since the JWST data drop. Nor am I aware of his having revised his speculative papers.

He instead lists the JWST implications on early galaxy formation, draws his own conclusions about the Big Bang, and then non-sequiturs into his own discredited 30 year-old cosmological theories from his own book "The Big Bang Never Happened: A Startling Refutation of the Dominant Theory of the Origin of the Universe".

The "Panic!" Is a Pun.

Mr. Lerner writes...

One paper’s title begins with the candid exclamation: “Panic!”. Why do the JWST’s images inspire panic among cosmologists?

They don't. The "panic" is a pun in a paper title that was somehow taken seriously.

He's referring to "Panic! At the Disks: First Rest-frame Optical Observations of Galaxy Structure at z>3 with JWST in the SMACS 0723 Field" by Leonardo Ferreira et al. The paper is about unexpected observations of galaxy disks. "Panic! At The Disco" is a band. Thus "Panic! At the Disks".

Professor Mike Merrifield of University of Notingham, specializes in galaxy formation, evolution, and structure. Sixty Symbols recently interviewed him on the topic: The Panic Paper (JWST). I'll be referencing this interview throughout the answer.

So the confusion is that various people didn't get past the first word of the title, which is "Panic!". That's because this is one of these things astronomers do from time to time... which is to make a joke in the title of their paper.

It's been grossly misinterpreted as somehow changing the paradigm of the Big Bang or making it appear that cosmology has to be completely different from what we thought it was. It doesn't do any of those things.

It's been grossly over-interpreted by various people as implying that we're in a state of panic by this result that these people have found. We're not, but it's just an interesting result.

Mr. Lerner Misrepresents Other's Conclusions

Mr. Lerner writes...

And what theory’s predictions are they contradicting? The papers don’t actually say.

They do. They're about how JWST potentially gave improved data about early galaxies which contradicts previous Hubble Space Telescope data. If true, this has big implications for our theories of early galaxy formation, but it does not disprove the Big Bang.

For example, Mr. Lerner references "A very early onset of massive galaxy formation" claiming it disproves the Big Bang...

But a paper to be published in Nature ["A very early onset of massive galaxy formation"] demonstrates that galaxies as massive as the Milky Way are common even a few hundred million years after the hypothesized Bang. The authors state that the new images show that there are at least 100,000 times as many galaxies as theorists predicted at redshifts more than 10. There is no way that so many large galaxies can be generated in so little time, so again-- no Big Bang.

His description of the paper is accurate, however the conclusion that "there is no way that so many large galaxies can be generated in so little time" is Mr. Lerner's own. The paper only mentions the Big Bang three times. And right in its abstract it references the Big Bang having happened...

From these first JWST images we infer that the central regions of at least some massive galaxies were already largely in place 500 Myr after the Big Bang, and that massive galaxy formation began extremely early in the history of the Universe.

Mr. Lerner Misrepresented Dr. Kirkpatrick

The single person Mr. Lerner quotes for his "panic" claim is Dr. Kirkpatrick, Assistant Professor at Department of Physics and Astronomy at The University of Kansas. He quotes a tweet of hers, out of context, to support his panic claim.

Since that hypothesis has been defended for decades as unquestionable truth by the vast majority of cosmological theorists, the new data is causing these theorists to panic. “Right now I find myself lying awake at three in the morning,” says Alison Kirkpatrick, an astronomer at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, “and wondering if everything I’ve done is wrong.”

Dr. Kirkpatrick's Twitter account title is currently "Allison the Big Bang happened Kirkpatrick" and her description says she has been "accused of saying there was no Big Bang".

She later tweeted "In case you are still confused, check out this nice summary by @dctrjack" linking to "No, James Webb Space Telescope Images Do Not Debunk the Big Bang".

Dr. Kirkpatrick also made it clear that while she does study black holes, she is not a cosmologist.

To all my new followers--welcome! I am NOT a cosmological theorist, despite what you may have read in the media. I'm an observer, and I study black holes!

What Do The Papers Actually Say?

Professor Merrifield said previous images from Hubble Space Telescope implied that early galaxies were...

...very messy, very chaotic things with blobs all over the place, they didn't look nice and smooth, they didn't look nice and symmetric the way that galaxies do in the nearby universe. That sort of made a bit of sense because, you know, presumably things were kind of chaotic back then; galaxies were just forming so you wouldn't expect things to have settled down to be quite so well behaved as they are now so you might expect things to be a bit more of a random nature.

What the "Panic!" paper claims is that JWST is...

...finding that actually most of the galaxies, even those in their infancy, are actually quite well behaved, quite symmetric, and they're almost all, well at least half of them, are disk-like systems. You know, they've got this ordered motion of a disc in them. So not only do they appear ordered, but probably the motions within them are quite ordered as well. And that, again, was not what we'd thought from the Hubble Space Telescope data. From the Hubble Space Telescope data it looked like, at those kind of early epochs, maybe 5% of galaxies were in discs. Now they're finding actually 50% of these galaxies have a disk-like structure, so almost 10 times as many.

So it was a very unexpected result, hence the "Panic!", but it's not, you know, turning the Big Bang upside down. It's turning our understanding of how galaxies form upside-down, but it's not revolutionizing absolutely everything.

Professor Merfeld again...

From the Hubble Space Telescope data it looked like, at those kind of early epochs, maybe 5% of galaxies were in discs. Now they're finding actually 50% of these galaxies have a disk-like structure, so almost 10 times as many.

So it was a very unexpected result, hence the "Panic!", but it's not, you know, turning the Big Bang upside down. It's turning our understanding of how galaxies form upside-down, but it's not revolutionizing absolutely everything.

We previously thought the earliest galaxies were fairly chaotic. JWST shows they're more orderly than we thought. While this does have implications about our model of the early universe, cosmologists are not panicking, nor does it disprove the Big Bang.

Mr. Lerner's Papers Are Not Based On JWST Data

Are these claims that JWST data cause a fundamental crisis for Big Bang cosmology accurate, or are they incorrect/overstated?

Mr. Lerner's recent papers are not based on actual JWST data, but what he thinks the JWST data will be.

He published three papers before the new JWST data was available and, as far as I'm aware, have not been updated since. Nor have they been accepted by any journal. "The Big Bang Never Happened—A Reassessment of the Galactic Origin of Light Elements (GOLE) Hypothesis and its Implications", "Observations of Large-Scale Structures Contradict the Predictions of the Big Bang Hypothesis But Confirm Plasma Theory", and "Will LCDM cosmology survive the James Webb Space Telescope?". In "Censored Papers Demolish the Big Bang Hypothesis", co-authored by Mr. Lerner, he claims those papers will "demonstrate conclusively that the Big Bang never happened" despite being speculative.

In "Will LCDM cosmology survive the James Webb Space Telescope?", Mr. Lerner has already concluded "that the JWST will provide data incompatible with LCDM cosmology, forcing a revolution both in astronomy and fundamental physics" despite not yet having seen the JWST data.

Mr. Lerner is president of LPPFusion, a fusion power company. "Focus Fusion" published "Scientists Protest Censorship in Cosmology" (24 scientists, to be exact) on LPPFusion's web site. "Focus Fusion", likely a socket puppet for Mr. Lerner, decries the rejection of his papers by Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS). MNRAS said...

The question in the title, "Will LCDM cosmology survive the James Webb Space Telescope?", plainly has the answer "No one knows" since there is as yet no data. … In any event, the authors’ claim at the end of the abstract that they already know that JWST’s data will be incompatible with LCDM is plainly unscientific.

There are many journals which would be interested in publishing a well-argued synthesis of existing evidence against the standard hot big bang interpretation. But MNRAS, with its focus on publication of significant new astronomical results, is not one of them.

The papers were rejected because they were not based on any new data, rather they were based on what they predict JWST will produce. He was told such speculation was off-topic for MNRAS, but maybe another journal would publish it. Mr. Lerner decries this as "censorship".

Lerner makes the claims that the only reason the Big Bang theory exists today is due to institutional inertia and suppression of dissenting views...

Is the same "institution" which launched JWST, one of the riskiest and most expensive science projects ever, to improve our understanding of the universe now rejecting the implications of its observations?

The irony of decrying institutional inertia while declaring concrete conclusions based on his own speculations is apparently lost on Mr. Lerner.

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