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Did black holes exist before galaxies formed in the universe?

In a remarkable new analysis of data from the James Webb Space Telescope, researchers have found evidence that black holes played a central role in shaping the universe as we know it — and much earlier than previously believed.

The experts propose that black holes not only existed at the dawn of the universe but also catalyzed the birth of new stars, acting as colossal accelerators for galaxy formation.

This research contradicts the long-held belief that black holes emerged after the formation of the first stars and galaxies.

Amplifiers of star formation 

“We know these monster black holes exist at the center of galaxies near our Milky Way, but the big surprise now is that they were present at the beginning of the universe as well and were almost like building blocks or seeds for early galaxies,” said study lead author Joseph Silk, a professor of physics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins University

“They really boosted everything, like gigantic amplifiers of star formation, which is a whole turnaround of what we thought possible before – so much so that this could completely shake up our understanding of how galaxies form.”

Observations of distant galaxies

This novel perspective is backed by observations of distant galaxies from the universe’s earliest epochs, which appear significantly brighter than anticipated, boasting high numbers of young stars and supermassive black holes

These observations challenge the prevailing model of cosmic evolution, suggesting instead a symbiotic existence of black holes and galaxies that influenced each other’s development during the universe’s first 100 million years.

This time period, in the grand timeline of the cosmos, equates to the initial days of January on a calendar that represents the universe’s 13.8 billion-year history.

“We’re arguing that black hole outflows crushed gas clouds, turning them into stars and greatly accelerating the rate of star formation,” explained Professor Silk. 

“Otherwise, it’s very hard to understand where these bright galaxies came from because they’re typically smaller in the early universe. Why on earth should they be making stars so rapidly?”

Black holes and bright galaxies

Black holes are regions in space where gravity’s pull is so intense that not even light can escape.

Because of this force, they generate powerful magnetic fields that make violent storms, ejecting turbulent plasma and ultimately acting like enormous particle accelerators, noted Professor Silk.

He explained that this process is likely why Webb‘s detectors have spotted more of these black holes and bright galaxies than scientists anticipated.

“We can’t quite see these violent winds or jets far, far away, but we know they must be present because we see many black holes early on in the universe,” said Silk.

“These enormous winds coming from the black holes crush nearby gas clouds and turn them into stars. That’s the missing link that explains why these first galaxies are so much brighter than we expected.”

Two-phase early universe

The analysis suggests a two-phase early universe: an initial period where black hole outflows spurred rapid star formation followed by a slowdown as these outflows transitioned to a more energy-conservative state. 

A few hundred million years after the big bang, gas clouds collapsed because of supermassive black hole magnetic storms, and new stars were born at a rate far exceeding that observed billions of years later in normal galaxies, explained Professor Silk.

The creation of stars slowed down because these powerful outflows transitioned into a state of energy conservation, he said, reducing the gas available to form stars in galaxies.

“We thought that in the beginning, galaxies formed when a giant gas cloud collapsed. The big surprise is that there was a seed in the middle of that cloud – a big black hole – and that helped rapidly turn the inner part of that cloud into stars at a rate much greater than we ever expected. And so the first galaxies are incredibly bright.”

Many questions remain about black holes 

The researchers are optimistic that future observations from the Webb telescope will further substantiate their findings and contribute to a deeper understanding of the universe’s evolution.

They anticipate that forthcoming data will offer more precise counts of stars and supermassive black holes in the early universe, aiding in the elucidation of the relationship between black holes and galaxy formation. 

“The big question is, what were our beginnings? The sun is one star in 100 billion in the Milky Way galaxy, and there’s a massive black hole sitting in the middle, too. What’s the connection between the two?” said Professor Silk. “Within a year we’ll have so much better data, and a lot of our questions will begin to get answers.”

The study is published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.


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