When something turns up in astronomical data that contradicts long accepted theory, the way forward is to proceed with caution, keep taking data and try to resolve the tension with older models. That would of course include considering the possibilities of error somewhere in the observations. All that is obvious enough, but a new paper on JWST data on high-redshift galaxies is striking in its implications. Researchers examining this primordial era have found six galaxies, from no more than 500 to 700 million years after the Big Bang, that give the appearance of being massive.

We’re looking at light from objects 13.5 billion years old that should be anything but mature, if compact, galaxies. That’s a surprise, and it’s fascinating to see the scrutiny to which these findings have been exposed. The editors of Nature have helpfully made available a peer review file containing back and forth comments between the authors and reviewers that give a jeweler’s eye look at how intricate the taking of high-redshift measurements can be. Reading this material offers an inside look at how the scientific community tests and refines its results enroute to what may need to be a modification of previous models.

It’s the availability of that peer review file that, as much as the findings themselves, occasions this post, as it offers laymen like myself a chance to see the scientific publication process at work. That cannot be anything but salutary in an era when complicated ideas are routinely pared into often misleading news headlines.

Image: Images of six candidate massive galaxies, seen 500-700 million years after the Big Bang. One of the sources (bottom left) could contain as many stars as our present-day Milky Way, according to researchers, but it is 30 times more compact. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, I. Labbe (Swinburne University of Technology). Image processing: G. Brammer (Niels Bohr Institute’s Cosmic Dawn Center at the University of Copenhagen). All Rights Reserved.

One note of caution emerges in the abstract to this work: “If verified with spectroscopy, the stellar mass density in massive galaxies would be much higher than anticipated from previous studies based on rest-frame ultraviolet-selected samples.”

That’s a pointer to what seems to be needed next. Penn State’s Joel Leja modeled the light from these objects, and I like the openness to alternative explanations that he injects here:

“This is our first glimpse back this far, so it’s important that we keep an open mind about what we are seeing. While the data indicates they are likely galaxies, I think there is a real possibility that a few of these objects turn out to be obscured supermassive black holes. Regardless, the amount of mass we discovered means that the known mass in stars at this period of our universe is up to 100 times greater than we had previously thought. Even if we cut the sample in half, this is still an astounding change.”

So the question of mass looms just as large as the formation process even if these do not turn out to be galaxies. No wonder Leja says the research team has been calling the six objects ‘universe breakers.’ On the one hand, the question of mass gets into fundamental issues of cosmology and the models that have long served astronomers. If galaxies actually form at this level at such an early time in the universe, then the mechanisms of galaxy formation demand renewed scrutiny. Leja is suggesting that a spectrum be produced for each of the new objects that can confirm the accuracy of our distance measurements, and also demonstrate what these ‘galaxies’ are made up of.

The paper on this remarkable finding itself continues to evolve. It’s Labbé et al., “A population of red candidate massive galaxies ~600 Myr after the Big Bang.” Nature 22 February 2023 (abstract). Note this editorial comment from the abstract page: “We are providing an unedited version of this manuscript to give early access to its findings. Before final publication, the manuscript will undergo further editing.” I’d like to read that final edit before commenting any further.