I would like to write something positive to close out the year. Apparently, it is not in my nature, as I am finding it difficult to do so. I try not to say anything if I can’t say anything nice, and as a consequence I have said little here for weeks at a time.
Still, there are good things that happened this year. JWST launched a year ago. The predictions I made for it at that time have since been realized. There have been some bumps along the way, with some of the photometric redshifts for very high z galaxies turning out to be wrong. They have not all turned out to be wrong, and the current consensus seems to be converging towards acceptance of there existing a good number of relatively bright galaxies at z > 10. Some of these have been ‘confirmed’ by spectroscopy.
I remain skeptical of some of the spectra as well as the photometric redshifts. There isn’t much spectrum to see at these rest frame ultraviolet wavelengths. There aren’t a lot of obvious, distinctive features in the spectra that make for definitive line identifications, and the universe is rather opaque to the UV photons blueward of the Lyman break. Here is an example from the JADES survey:
Despite the lack of distinctive spectral lines, there is a clear shape that is ramping up towards the blue until hitting a sharp edge. This is consistent with the spectrum of a star forming galaxy with young stars that make a lot of UV light: the upward bend is expected for such a population, and hard to explain otherwise. The edge is cause by opacity: intervening gas and dust gobbles up those photons, few of which are likely to even escape their host galaxy, much less survive the billions of light-years to be traversed between there-then and here-now. So I concur that the most obvious interpretation of these spectra is that of high-z galaxies even if we don’t have the satisfaction of seeing blatantly obvious emission lines like C IV or Mg II (ionized species of carbon and magnesium that are frequently seen in the spectra of quasars). [The obscure nomenclature dates back to nineteenth century laboratory spectroscopy. Mg I is neutral, Mg II singly ionized, C IV triply ionized.]
Even if we seem headed towards consensus on the reality of big galaxies at high redshift, the same cannot yet be said about their interpretation. This certainly came as a huge surprise to astronomers not me. The obvious interpretation is the theory that predicted this observation in advance, no?
Apparently not. Another predictable phenomenon is that people will self-gaslight themselves into believing that this was expected all along. I have been watching in real time as the community makes the transition from “there is nothing above redshift 7” (the prediction of LCDM contemporary with Bob Sanders’s MOND prediction that galaxy mass objects form by z=10) to “this was unexpected!” and is genuinely problematic to “Nah, we’re good.” This is the same trajectory I’ve seen the community take with the cusp-core problem, the missing satellite problem, the RAR, the existence of massive clusters of galaxies at surprisingly high redshift, etc., etc. A theory is only good to the extent that its predictions are not malleable enough to be made to fit any observation.
As I was trying to explain on twitter that individually high mass galaxies had not been expected in LCDM, someone popped into my feed to assert that they had multiple simulations with galaxies that massive. That certainly had not been the case all along, so this just tells me that LCDM doesn’t really make a prediction here that can’t be fudged (crank up the star formation efficiency!). This is worse than no prediction at all: you can never know that you’re wrong, as you can fix any failing. Worse, it has been my experience that there is always someone willing to play the role of fixer, usually some ambitious young person eager to gain credit for saving the most favored theory. It works – I can point to many Ivy league careers that followed this approach. They don’t even have to work hard at it, as the community is predisposed to believe what they want to hear.
These are all reasons why predictions made in advance of the relevant observation are the most valuable.
That MOND has consistently predicted, in advance, results that were surprising to LCDM is a fact that the community apparently remains unaware of. Communication is inefficient, so for a long time I thought this sufficed as an explanation. That is no longer the case; the only explanation that fits the sociological observations is that the ignorance is willful.
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”Upton Sinclair
We have been spoiled. The last 400 years has given us the impression that science progresses steadily and irresistibly forward. This is in no way guaranteed. Science progresses in fits and starts; it only looks continuous when the highlights are viewed in retrospective soft focus. Progress can halt and even regress, as happened abruptly with the many engineering feats of the Romans with the fall of their empire. Science is a human endeavor subject to human folly, and we might just as easily have a thousand years of belief in invisible mass as we did in epicycles.
Despite all this, I remain guardedly optimistic that we can and will progress. I don’t know what the right answer is. The first step is to let go of being sure that we do.
I’ll end with a quote pointed out to me by David Merritt that seems to apply today as it did centuries ago:
“The scepticism of that generation was the most uncompromising that the world has known; for it did not even trouble to deny: it simply ignored. It presented a blank wall of perfect indifference alike to the mysteries of the universe and to the solutions of them.”Books and Characters by Lytton Strachey (chapter on Mme du Deffand)
Live long, and prosper in the new year. Above all, remain skeptical.