Science in Society Archive


Galaxy Making Stars at the Edge of the Universe and Other “Surprises”

The Universe is 14 billion years old, but galaxies were already making stars at prodigious rates by 700 million years after the Big Bang if not sooner, and there is no turbulence when galaxies collide to form huge clusters; surely the theory can’t be right Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

Through sea and sky by Li Poon

Astronomy has been making news with numerous “unexpected” discoveries and “surprising” finds. The latest is a single galaxy most distant from Earth and our own Milky Way [1] that is presumably showing us what happened 700 million years after the Big Bang, which marks the birth of the Universe 13.8 billion years ago (see Box 1).

Box 1

Big Bang cosmology in a nutshell [2]

Big Bang theory says that our Universe began as a gigantic explosion (‘big bang’) from an extremely dense and hot state approximately 13. 798 billion years ago and has continued to expand - space carrying galaxies with it - to the present day. After the initial expansion, it cooled enough to allow energy to be converted into subatomic particles (protons, neutrons and electrons) and simple atomic nuclei within the first three minutes. Thousands of years passed before the first electrically neutral atoms formed, the majority being hydrogen, along with helium and traces of lithium. Giant clouds of these primordial elements then coalesced through gravity to form stars and galaxies and the heavier elements were synthesized either within stars or during supernovae explosions that happen to stars at the end of their life as the result of gravitational collapse.  

Big Bang cosmology is based on gravitational forces between neutral masses in accordance with Einstein’s general theory of relativity, and has a definite beginning as well as an end.

The end comes in stages, beginning when star formation ceases altogether, having used up all the interstellar gas in each galaxy, and stars burn out, turning into white dwarfs, neutron stars, or black holes in increasing massiveness of the stars. Collisions between these result In everything being swallowed up by black holes, from which nothing can escape, not even light; so black holes grow bigger and bigger. This marks the onset of the cosmic Big Freeze, as the average temperature of the universe approaches absolute zero. However, on account of quantum uncertainty, rotating black holes create and emit particles, and also release Hawking radiation (named after British cosmologist Stephen Hawking). Hawking radiation reduces the mass and energy of black holes resulting in black hole evaporation and entropy (consisting of incoherent heat energy) increasing in the universe until nothing else is left but heat. This Heat Death marks the very end of the universe.

Galaxy Z8_GND_5296, the latest find, holds current record for the most distant and oldest galaxy ever spotted, verified by combining data collected by the Hubble Space Telescope with observations from the Keck I telescope in Hawaii. Lead author Steven Finkelstein at University of Texas Austin says [3]: “We want to study very distant galaxies to learn how galaxies change with time.” The new observations give a glimpse of conditions when the universe was only about 5 % of its current age of 13.8 billion years.

That particular galaxy is one among dozens chosen for follow-up from the approximately 100 000 galaxies discovered in the Hubble Cosmic Assembly Near-infrared Deep Extragalactic Legacy Survey (CANDELS), the largest project in the history of the Hubble, using more than one month of Hubble observation time.

Cosmological red shift and distance

To work out the distance of galaxies, especially those really far away, astronomers use spectroscopy, a technique for analysing the light emitted or absorbed into narrow spectral bands or lines, and look at how much the galaxy’s light has shifted towards the red, i.e., increased in wavelength [4, 5]. Among the most precise marker for red shift is the Lyman-a line, emitted or absorbed by the hydrogen atom when its electron moves between the first excited and the ground state. In the laboratory (a ‘resting’ frame as far as Earthbound observers are concerned), this line (lrest) appears at 121.6 nm in the far ultraviolet part of the electromagnetic spectrum. For light coming from astronomical objects, the line is shifted to longer wavelengths (lob), and this shift is attributed to the expansion of the universe (hence the object moving away from Earth) in Big Bang theory. The redshift z is the increase in wavelength relative to the rest wavelength.

z = (loblrest)/ lrest                                                                                (1)

Thus, a redshift of 7 (7-fold excess) would mean that the normal rest wavelength is shifted into the infrared region, i.e., 972.8 nm.  From the red shift, it is possible to work out the distance of the object as well as the time relative to the present at which the light was emitted [4, 5]. This depends on a proportionality relationship known as Hubble’s Law between distance and the redshift.  

Finkelstein and his team of astronomers used the Keck I telescope to measure the redshift of the Lyman-a line in the light emitted from Z8_GND_5296, which was found at 7.51, the highest ever detected, making the galaxy the most distant as well as the oldest in the universe [1, 3], if the cosmological red shift does indicate distance in accordance with the expanding Big Bang Universe.

“Unexpected” findings

There are several unexpected features about the galaxy Z8_GND_5296, apart from its great age. The first is that it is forming stars very rapidly, about 330 solar masses per year, 150 times faster than our own Milky Way galaxy, despite the fact that it only had 700 million years to evolve after the big bang [1]. This new distance record-holder is from the same part of the sky as the previous record holder at redshift 7.2, which also has a very high rate of star formation. It suggests that the early Universe may harbour a larger number of intense sites of star formation than expected. (It is not clear why this is “unexpected”, as to Big Bang theory does not make definite predictions on the timescale of galaxy formation in the history of the Universe. Rather it appeals to ‘fluctuations’ in the density of matter (and dark matter) in the original homogeneous Universe to account for the clumpiness in the distribution of galaxies and clusters of galaxies [6].)

Another unusual feature of Z8_GND_5296 is that it is the only one out of 43 galaxies with z > 6.5 that has a detectable Lyman-a emission characteristic of neutral (un-ionized) hydrogen, whereas 6 such galaxies were expected. To explain the lack of such galaxies, the neutral fraction of hydrogen in the intergalactic medium (IGM) at z=6.5 would have to be as high as 60-90 % (which would absorb the emission), implying a rapid increase from z = 6, where galaxies with detectable Lyman-a emission are more plentiful. However, most other observations are consistent with an IGM neutral fraction of hydrogen at 10 %.

Galaxy Z8_GND_5296 is not visible in the optical spectrum on account of the redshift; but as it is very bright in the rest-frame ultraviolet and optical, it appears bright in the near to far infrared.  Its brightness is also unusual for such a distant object, as Hubble’s Law was based on original observations that fainter galaxies are red shifted to a greater extent.  This anomaly was not commented on by the authors [1, 3].

Coma Cluster, another big surprise

A month earlier, astronomers discovered enormous arms of hot gas in the Coma cluster of galaxies analysing data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray observatory and ESA’s XMM-Newton [7]. Chandra is a telescope specially designed to detect X-ray emissions from very hot regions of the Universe such as exploded stars, clusters of galaxies, and matter around black holes. Because X-rays are absorbed by Earth’s atmosphere, Chandra must orbit above it, up to an altitude of 139 000 km in space [8]. The XMM-Newton is the European Space Agency equivalent, the X-ray multi-mirror mission launched 10 December 1999; a spacecraft carrying 3 high throughput X-ray telescopes with an unprecedented effective area and an optical monitor [9].

Hot x-ray emitting plasma in galaxy clusters is predicted in Big Bang theory to have turbulent motion, which can contribute around 10 % of the cluster’s central energy density. But the observations with the x-ray telescopes on the Coma cluster core show 4 long linear high-density arms spanning 150 kiloparsecs (489 000 light years) (Figure 1), two of which (lower left of image) appear to be connected with a subgroup of galaxies at a 650 kiloparsec radius that is merging into the cluster, “implying coherence over several hundred million years” [7]. In other words, there is no turbulence whatsoever, despite the energetic state of the cluster due to galaxies presumably colliding into one another to form the cluster. “Magnetic fields are presumably responsible.” The authors suggested.

Figure 1   The Coma cluster with x-ray overlay on optical image, Chandra, Harvard

Serious mismatch between theory and observations

Astrophysicist Wal Thornhill reviews the Coma cluster findings in an excellent video [10]. Thornhill reminds us what astronomer Halton Arp has written in his book, Quasars, Redshifts and Controversies [11] published in 1988.

“The Coma Cluster represents the densest, most conspicuous aggregate of galaxies in the sky and has long been taken as the prototype medium distant galaxy cluster. The astronomer Sinclair Smith was one of the first to calculate under the assumption that the redshifts were velocities in equilibrium …that the mass of the cluster far exceeded the mass of the galaxies comprising it.

“The noted astronomer Fritz Zwicky later emphasized this discrepancy, and so we have the concept of dark- or missing-mass [dark matter]. This observationally undetected but crucial repair to the theory had to be invented to save the redshift equals velocity assumption. Eventually it became so needed that today we have a universe that is reported about 90 % unobservable.”

Arp suggested that instead of being old quiescent systems, galaxy clusters like Coma are filled with high energy radiation that requires resupply.

“They show strong evidence for recent ejection of high redshift matter. They have large component of intrinsic red shift. They are small, low-luminosity and are associated with older more nearby galaxies.”

In other words, as Thornhill goes on to say [10], the arms connect older, parent galaxies with younger (daughter) galaxies. Arp has turned the redshift versus age relationship on its head: high redshifts are related to youthfulness of the object, not age.

There is a serious mismatch between Big Bang cosmology and empirical observations that cannot be reconciled even with the help of unobservable dark energy and dark matter.  The top contender to Big Bang cosmology that can explain much more without the need for dark energy or dark matter is the Electric Plasma theory (see [12] Continuous Creation from Electric Plasma versus the Big Bang Universe, SiS 60). It presents a Universe alive with continuous creation of galaxies and stars, reminding us of English mathematician-philosopher Alfred North Whitehead’s proposal that the Universe is an organism, and that we cannot hope to understand nature except as an organism (see [13] Life is Water Electric, SiS 57).

I thank Bob Johnson of Thunderbolt project for reviewing this manuscript and providing very helpful comments.

Article first published 07/11/13


  1. Finkelstein SL, Papovich C, Dickinson M, et al. A galaxy rapidly forming stars 700 million years after the Big Bang at redshift 7.51. Nature 2013, 502, 524-7.
  2. Big Bang, Wikipedia, 12 October 2013,
  3. “Texas astronomers discovers most distant known galaxy”, McDonald Observatory, University of Texas Press Release, 23 October 2013,
  4. Cosmological redshift. Cosmos – The SAO Encyclopedia of Astronomy, Swinburne Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing, accessed 24 October 2013,
  5. Project II. Distance measures in cosmology, accessed 24 October 2013,
  6. Galaxy formation and evolution. Wikipedia, 16 September 2013,
  7. Sanders JS, Fabian AC, Churazov E, Schekochinhin AA, Simionescu A, Walker SA dna Werner N. Linear structures in the core of the Coma cluster of galaxies. Science 2013, 341, 1365-8.
  8. Chandra X-Ray observatory, NASA’s flagship mission for X-ray astronomy. Accessed 24 October 2o13,
  9. XMM-Newton, European Space Agency, accessed 24 October 2013,
  10. Electrical “plasma arms” of the Coma Galaxy cluster, Thunderbolt Project, 30 September 2013,
  11. Arp HC. Quasars, Redshifts and Controversies, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1988.
  12. Ho MW. Continuous creation from electric plasma versus Big Bang Universe. Science in Society 60.
  13. Ho MW. Life is water electric. Science in Society 57, 43-47, 2013; also invited keynote lecture at Electric Universe 2013, The Tipping Point Conference, Albuquerque, 3-6 January, 2013.

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Rory Short Comment left 8th November 2013 03:03:11
I am not an astronomer or cosmologist but I am a Quaker. I accept the evidence that biological life has been evolving toward greater and greater consciousness to the point where humankind appeared. We are a life form capable of self referential consciousness and therefore capable of communicating with the over-arching consciousness that seems to me, through my experience in Quaker Meetings for Worship, to permeate the Universe.Consequently I have no problem with the idea that the Universe is an organism and an evolving one at that. In fact I really like the idea.

Julian Rose Comment left 8th November 2013 03:03:24
What a splendid conclusion. Some form of eternal cyclic movement which moves between birthing, growing, ageing, dying and rebirthing certainly fills me with much more 'aaah!' recognition than any 'big bang' theory. The Nobel Prize winning author, Thomas Mann, wrote in the opening of his novel 'Joseph and His Brothers' "Deep is the well of the past, shall we not call it bottomless?"

Tam Hunt Comment left 8th November 2013 04:04:03
Excellent article! Interestingly, I've come to similar conclusions regarding modern cosmology and have conducted a series of interviews with "maverick" cosmologists challenging the prevailing Big Ban Cosmology. Here's one with Tim Eastman on plasma astrophysics and cosmology:

Giano Sereno Comment left 9th November 2013 21:09:25
I think that the Quasi-steady State model of the Universe by Hoyle,Burbidge and Narlikar is also worth mentioning to your readers as a serious alternative to the Big Bang. No model, as far as I can tell, is able to-day to explain Arp's anomalous redshifts.The Big Bang chooses simply to ignore them.In fact the so called "standard cosmology" is not even wrong.

James Cooley Comment left 8th November 2013 18:06:06
Just curious, has Stephen Hawking commented on the Electric Plasma theory?

Todd Millions Comment left 17th November 2013 19:07:24
I have always wondered how much our edge of veiw models would be distorted by our measuring grids.Granted B.Fullers synergetic geometry bit me at a youg age.Yet-how distorted is space time becoming at these ranges?And in what ways-the grain of it?Our axioms do need re examined in relation too reality before cosmological map can have more than a cartoon rendering.