How a local astronomer successfully fought the scientific consensus

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Local astronomer Don Winget points to “the most important picture in the world,” a photo from the Hubble Space Telescope showing a minuscule fraction of the night sky. In the 1980s, Winget helped overturn a scientific consensus that the universe was 20-30 billion years old, and established a new understanding of a “younger” universe. (Waylon Cunningham Photo)

By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM

Astronomer Don Winget has a scientific answer to a philosophical question.

When he was last featured in The Independent two decades ago, it was for hosting several horse riding masters from a school in Spain at his ranch in Liberty Hill. These men, he says, were the best in the world at what they did, and if you look at who their teachers were, and who those teachers were taught by, you can trace a pedigree going back to the school’s beginnings in the 1500s.

Similarly, if you look at who Winget’s doctoral thesis advisor was, and then who advised them, and so on up through generations, you will eventually arrive at Saint Peter, Winget says — 6,000 years ago.

Thus the question: How far back can something be traced?

And his answer: 12-14 billion years.

That is the age of the universe Winget helped established years ago using something called white dwarf stars. Then, as now, he was living in Liberty Hill.

The paper he and his colleagues wrote, “An Independent Method for Determining the Age of the Universe with White Dwarf Cooling,” was a source of controversy when a leading scientific journal published it in 1987. It overturned the prevailing wisdom then that the universe was somewhere between 20-30 billion years old.

“It made a lot of people really mad,” Winget says. “They spend a lifetime building a barn, and you come by and burn it down.”

Winget, 61, does not come across today as a barn-burner. The father of five explains his ideas with a patient smile, honed by years of teaching introductory courses to astronomy.

“Though it’s quite sexist,” he says, he quotes Ernest Rutherford’s famous adage that “if you can’t explain something to a barmaid in five minutes, you don’t really understand it.”

His preferred way of explaining the work he and his colleagues began on white dwarf stars in the late 1970s involves coffee cups.

“Say we stack up a bunch of coffee cups in the microwave, fill them with water, and boil them,” he says. “If we come back later, and measure the cups with a thermometer, we can figure out how long it was since it came out of the microwave.”

Dating white dwarf stars works similarly. The cooler a white dwarf star is, or in other words, the closer it is to the cosmic “room temperature,” the older it is.

Because 97-99 percent of stars eventually collapse to become white dwarfs, the “coolest” white dwarfs were then also the oldest stars. And the coolest stars they could find were only 10 billion years old.

“So we thought, this only makes sense if the disk was also 10 billion years old”— ‘disk’ meaning the middle portion of the galaxy, a shape he describes using stacked dinner plates.

Winget and his colleagues submitted the paper for publication “with urgency,” he said, “because it was a revolutionary claim that the universe was younger than thought by a factor of two.

At the time, scientists thought the universe was 20-30 billion years old because the stars, which Winget uses coffee cups to illustrate, were found to be a certain distance apart. Given that the universe expands outward at a particular constant pace, and given that the stars all began from the same place, scientists had calculated how much time it would have taken the stars to move that far.

But as months passed, they heard nothing— until Winget’s phone rang.

He recognized the voice as Icko Iben, a mentor and friend of Winget’s who he says is known as the “godfather” of stellar evolution. “He just said, ‘Don, come to my office.’”

Winget, who was living in Liberty Hill at the time, ran to the airport to book a flight to Chicago. He knocked on Icko’s university office door later that day.

“Then he told me to shut the door, so I do, and then he starts yelling at me,” Winget says. “He’s yelling and yelling, and this goes on for what seemed like 30 minutes. Or I think it was five minutes really, which is a long time for someone to yell at you.”

Finally Winget interrupts him — “why are you yelling at me?” he asks.

Icko said Winget was right, Winget said. He revealed that he had been asked by the scientific journal to verify Winget’s research on white dwarfs and the age of the universe, and had painstakingly recreated the paper’s results.

The issue, Icko explained to Winget, was that he and other physicists had for years done their research based on the premise of a much older universe. This new revelation, he said, would overturn much of that.

“And a lot of people will be angry,” Winget remembers Icko warning, “but eventually they’ll do what I did, and they’ll see you were right.”

“And he was right,” Winget says. “So I’m thankful he did that.”

The paper was published shortly thereafter, and as Icko predicted, the reaction in much of the scientific community was initially heated. Winget recalls at one point early on, during a colloquium he gave in Baltimore at the fledgling “Space Science Institute,” he faced a room of scientists who were largely hostile. One man, he recalls, pounded his desk as he spoke to attack the new theory.

But as the months went on, more and more papers were published by other scientists who found the younger universe suggested by Winget and his colleagues simply explained more than the previous model. Within two years, “12-14 billion” was the new consensus for the age of the universe.

Winget says that the story of his theory, from reaction to acceptance, is simply the way of science. “What’s right will come out eventually, but it takes a while.”

It is not that the theories in between are proven wrong, he says, but more often that they are simply discovered to have more context. Albert Einstein’s theories about relativity are sometimes said to have “overturned” Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity, he says, but really it just made clear that they only work up to a point.

Similarly, dating the age of the universe by the expansion of the space between galaxies was not wrong, he says. New information has led scientists to adjust what it is believed to be the pace of expansion, and which now agrees with the younger universe.

As for his own contribution, “I’m sure I’ll be proven wrong one day,” Winget says. “No theory lasts forever.”

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