The Story of Our Universe is Starting to Unravel – Thanks to the Webb Telescope!

Virginia Gabrielli

Dear Commons Community,

Adam Frank, an astrophysicist at the University of Rochester, says that cosmology, the study of the universe, isn’t like other sciences.  He says  it’s a realm where science starts to get pretty close to philosophy — an inquiry into the nature of existence.

That’s something that he and Marcelo Gleiser, a theoretical physicist at Dartmouth College, have spent a lot of time talking about, especially in the months since the James Webb Space Telescope started beaming back information at the very end of last year. That information included images so extraordinary that Dennis Overbye called them “eye candy from heaven.” But it also included data that was not what cosmologists expected. Which got Frank and Gleiser thinking: How much of what’s known as the standard model — the basis for most cosmological research — is right, and how much is just a kind of elaborate patch?

Take dark matter and energy, for example, the catchall term scientists use for the vast majority of the universe we cannot currently measure or see. Gleiser thinks that 100 years from now, the concept will seem risible. “When 96 percent of the universe is something you’re calling dark, meaning you have no idea what it is,” he told me, “that may be an indication that there’s really something much deeper going on that you’re missing.”

That possibility is the subject of a somewhat mind-bending guest essay they wrote for Times Opinion. “Physicists and astronomers are starting to get the sense that something may be really wrong,” they explain. “It’s not just that some of us believe we might have to rethink the standard model of cosmology; we might also have to change the way we think about some of the most basic features of our universe — a conceptual revolution that would have implications far beyond the world of science.”

“It’s wonderful,” Gleiser exclaimed, “because if it’s true, we’re going to be witnessing a revolution in thinking about how the universe works.”

Frank said, “It’s actually the most exciting thing ever when things don’t work, because that means you’re on the frontier of what you know and what you don’t know, and that’s the most exciting place for a scientist to be.”

Exciting indeed! It is not everyday that we may be witnessing a revolution in thinking about something the size of the universe!!


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