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Britain and America are two nations divided by a common language.

attributed to George Bernard Shaw

Physics and Astronomy are two fields divided by a common interest in how the universe works. There is a considerable amount of overlap between some sub-fields of these subjects, and practically none at all in others. The aims and goals are often in common, but the methods, assumptions, history, and culture are quite distinct. This leads to considerable confusion, as with the English language – scientists with different backgrounds sometimes use the same words to mean rather different things.

A few terms that are commonly used to describe scientists who work on the subjects that I do include astronomer, astrophysicist, and cosmologist. I could be described as any of the these. But I also know lots of scientists to whom these words could be applied, but would mean something rather different.

A common question I get is “What’s the difference between an astronomer and an astrophysicist?” This is easy to answer from my experience as a long-distance commuter. If I get on a plane, and the person next to me is chatty and asks what I do, if I feel like chatting, I am an astronomer. If I don’t, I’m an astrophysicist. The first answer starts a conversation, the second shuts it down.

Flippant as that anecdote is, it is excruciatingly accurate – both for how people react (commuting between Cleveland and Baltimore for a dozen years provided lots of examples), and for what the difference is: practically none. If I try to offer a more accurate definition, then I am sure to fail to provide a complete answer, as I don’t think there is one. But to make the attempt:

Astronomy is the science of observing the sky, encompassing all elements required to do so. That includes practical matters like the technology of telescopes and their instruments across all wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum, and theoretical matters that allow us to interpret what we see up there: what’s a star? a nebula? a galaxy? How does the light emitted by these objects get to us? How do we count photons accurately and interpret what they mean?

Astrophysics is the science of how things in the sky work. What makes a star shine? [Nuclear reactions]. What produces a nebular spectrum? [The atomic physics of incredibly low density interstellar plasma.] What makes a spiral galaxy rotate? [Gravity! Gravity plus, well, you know, something. Or, if you read this blog, you know that we don’t really know.] So astrophysics is the physics of the objects astronomy discovers in the sky. This is a rather broad remit, and covers lots of physics.

With this definition, astrophysics is a subset of astronomy – such a large and essential subset that the terms can and often are used interchangeably. These definitions are so intimately intertwined that the distinction is not obvious even for those of us who publish in the learned journals of the American Astronomical Society: the Astronomical Journal (AJ) and the Astrophysical Journal (ApJ). I am often hard-pressed to distinguish between them, but to attempt it in brief, the AJ is where you publish a paper that says “we observed these objects” and the ApJ is where you write “here is a model to explain these objects.” The opportunity for overlap is obvious: a paper that says “observations of these objects test/refute/corroborate this theory” could appear in either. Nevertheless, there was a clearly a sufficient need to establish a separate journal focused on the physics of how things in the sky worked to launch the Astrophysical Journal in 1895 to complement the older Astronomical Journal (dating from 1849).

Cosmology is the study of the entire universe. As a science, it is the subset of astrophysics that encompasses observations that measure the universe as a physical entity: its size, age, expansion rate, and temporal evolution. Examples are sufficiently diverse that practicing scientists who call themselves cosmologists may have rather different ideas about what it encompasses, or whether it even counts as astrophysics in the way defined above.

Indeed, more generally, cosmology is where science, philosophy, and religion collide. People have always asked the big questions – we want to understand the world in which we find ourselves, our place in it, our relation to it, and to its Maker in the religious sense – and we have always made up stories to fill in the gaping void of our ignorance. Stories that become the stuff of myth and legend until they are unquestionable aspects of a misplaced faith that we understand all of this. The science of cosmology is far from immune to myth making, and often times philosophical imperatives have overwhelmed observational facts. The lengthy persistence of SCDM in the absence of any credible evidence that Ωm = 1 is a recent example. Another that comes and goes is the desire for a Phoenix universe – one that expands, recollapses, and is then reborn for another cycle of expansion and contraction that repeats ad infinitum. This is appealing for philosophical reasons – the universe isn’t just some bizarre one-off – but there’s precious little that we know (or perhaps can know) to suggest it is a reality.

This has all happened before, and will all happen again.

Nevertheless, genuine and enormous empirical progress has been made. It is stunning what we know now that we didn’t a century ago. It has only been 90 years since Hubble established that there are galaxies external to the Milky Way. Prior to that, the prevailing cosmology consisted of a single island universe – the Milky Way – that tapered off into an indefinite, empty void. Until Hubble established otherwise, it was widely (though not universally) thought that the spiral nebulae were some kind of gas clouds within the Milky Way. Instead, the universe is filled with millions and billions of galaxies comparable in stature to the Milky Way.

We have sometimes let our progress blind us to the gaping holes that remain in our knowledge. Some of our more imaginative and less grounded colleagues take some of our more fanciful stories to be established fact, which sometimes just means the problem is old and familiar so boring if still unsolved. They race ahead to create new stories about entities like multiverses. To me, multiverses are manifestly metaphysical: great fun for late night bull sessions, but not a legitimate branch of physics.

So cosmology encompasses a lot. It can mean very different things to different people, and not all of it is scientific. I am not about to touch on the world-views of popular religions, all of which have some flavor of cosmology. There is controversy enough about these definitions among practicing scientists.

I started as a physicist. I earned an SB in physics from MIT in 1985, and went on to the physics (not the astrophysics) department of Princeton for grad school. I had elected to study physics because I had a burning curiosity about how the world works. It was not specific to astronomy as defined above. Indeed, astronomy seemed to me at the time to be but one of many curiosities, and not necessarily the main one.

There was no clear department of astronomy at MIT. Some people who practiced astrophysics were in the physics department; others in Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Science, still others in Mathematics. At the recommendation of my academic advisor Michael Feld, I wound up doing a senior thesis with George W. Clark, a high energy astrophysicist who mostly worked on cosmic rays and X-ray satellites. There was a large high energy astrophysics group at MIT who studied X-ray sources and the physics that produced them – things like neutron stars, black holes, supernova remnants, and the intracluster medium of clusters of galaxies – celestial objects with sufficiently extreme energies to make X-rays. The X-ray group needed to do optical follow-up (OK, there’s an X-ray source at this location on the sky. What’s there?) so they had joined the MDM Observatory. I had expressed a vague interest in orbital dynamics, and Clark had become interested in the structure of elliptical galaxies, motivated by the elegant orbital structures described by Martin Schwarzschild. The astrophysics group did a lot of work on instrumentation, so we had access to a new-fangled CCD. These made (and continue to make) much more sensitive detectors than photographic plates.

Empowered by this then-new technology, we embarked on a campaign to image elliptical galaxies with the MDM 1.3 m telescope. The initial goal was to search for axial twists as the predicted consequence of triaxial structure – Schwarzschild had shown that elliptical galaxies need not be oblate or prolate, but could have three distinct characteristic lengths along their principal axes. What we noticed instead with the sensitive CCD was a wonder of new features in the low surface brightness outskirts of these galaxies. Most elliptical galaxies just fade smoothly into obscurity, but every fourth or fifth case displayed distinct shells and ripples – features that were otherwise hard to spot that had only recently been highlighted by Malin & Carter.

A modern picture (courtesy of Pierre-Alain Duc) of the shell galaxy Arp 227 (NGC 474). Quantifying the surface brightness profiles of the shells in order to constrain theories for their origin became the subject of my senior thesis. I found that they were most consistent with stars on highly elliptical orbits, as expected from the shredded remnants of a cannibalized galaxy. Observations like this contributed to a sea change in the thinking about galaxies as isolated island universes that never interacted to the modern hierarchical view in which galaxy mergers are ubiquitous.

At the time I was doing this work, I was of course reading up on galaxies in general, and came across Mike Disney’s arguments as to how low surface brightness galaxies could be ubiquitous and yet missed by many surveys. This resonated with my new observing experience. Look hard enough, and you would find something new that had never before been seen. This proved to be true, and remains true to this day.

I went on only two observing runs my senior year. The weather was bad for the first one, clearing only the last night during which I collected all the useful data. The second run came too late to contribute to my thesis. But I was enchanted by the observatory as a remote laboratory, perched in the solitude of the rugged mountains, themselves alone in an empty desert of subtly magnificent beauty. And it got dark at night. You could actually see the stars. More stars than can be imagined by those confined to the light pollution of a city.

It hadn’t occurred to me to apply to an astronomy graduate program. I continued on to Princeton, where I was assigned to work in the atomic physics lab of Will Happer. There I mostly measured the efficiency of various buffer gases in moderating spin exchange between sodium and xenon. This resulted in my first published paper.

In retrospect, this is kinda cool. As an alkali, the atomic structure of sodium is basically that of a noble gas with a spare electron it’s eager to give away in a chemical reaction. Xenon is a noble gas, chemically inert as it already has nicely complete atomic shells; it wants neither to give nor receive electrons from other elements. Put the two together in a vapor, and they can form weak van der Waals molecules in which they share the unwanted valence electron like a hot potato. The nifty thing is that one can spin-polarize the electron by optical pumping with a laser. As it happens, the wave function of the electron has a lot of overlap with the nucleus of the xenon (one of the allowed states has no angular momentum). Thanks to this overlap, the spin polarization imparted to the electron can be transferred to the xenon nucleus. In this way, it is possible to create large amounts of spin-polarized xenon nuclei. This greatly enhances the signal of MRI, and has found an application in medical imaging: a patient can breathe in a chemically inert [SAFE], spin polarized noble gas, making visible all the little passageways of the lungs that are otherwise invisible to an MRI. I contributed very little to making this possible, but it is probably the closest I’ll ever come to doing anything practical.

The same technology could, in principle, be applied to make dark matter detection experiments phenomenally more sensitive to spin-dependent interactions. Giant tanks of xenon have already become one of the leading ways to search for WIMP dark matter, gobbling up a significant fraction of the world supply of this rare noble gas. Spin polarizing the xenon on the scales of tons rather than grams is a considerable engineering challenge.

Now, in that last sentence, I lapsed into a bit of physics arrogance. We understand the process. Making it work is “just” a matter of engineering. In general, there is a lot of hard work involved in that “just,” and a lot of times it is a practical impossibility. That’s probably the case here, as the polarization decays away quickly – much more quickly than one could purify and pump tons of the stuff into a vat maintained at a temperature near absolute zero.

At the time, I did not appreciate the meaning of what I was doing. I did not like working in Happer’s lab. The windowless confines kept dark but for the sickly orange glow of a sodium D laser was not a positive environment to be in day after day after day. More importantly, the science did not call to my heart. I began to dream of a remote lab on a scenic mountain top.

I also found the culture in the physics department at Princeton to be toxic. Nothing mattered but to be smarter than the next guy (and it was practically all guys). There was no agreed measure for this, and for the most part people weren’t so brazen as to compare test scores. So the thing to do was Be Arrogant. Everybody walked around like they were too frickin’ smart to be bothered to talk to anyone else, or even see them under their upturned noses. It was weird – everybody there was smart, but no human could possible be as smart as these people thought they were. Well, not everybody, of course – Jim Peebles is impossibly intelligent, sane, and even nice (perhaps he is an alien, or at least a Canadian) – but for most of Princeton arrogance was a defining characteristic that seeped unpleasantly into every interaction.

It was, in considerable part, arrogance that drove me away from physics. I was appalled by it. One of the best displays was put on by David Gross in a colloquium that marked the take-over of theoretical physics by string theory. The dude was talking confidently in bold positivist terms about predictions that were twenty orders of magnitude in energy beyond any conceivable experimental test. That, to me, wasn’t physics.

More than thirty years on, I can take cold comfort that my youthful intuition was correct. String theory has conspicuously failed to provide the vaunted “theory of everything” that was promised. Instead, we have vague “landscapes” of 10500 possible theories. Just want one. 10500 is not progress. It’s getting hopelessly lost. That’s what happens when brilliant ideologues are encouraged to wander about in their hyperactive imaginations without experimental guidance. You don’t get physics, you get metaphysics. If you think that sounds harsh, note that Gross himself takes exactly this issue with multiverses, saying the notion “smells of angels” and worrying that a generation of physicists will be misled down a garden path – exactly the way he misled a generation with string theory.

So I left Princeton, and switched to a field where progress could be made. I chose to go to the University of Michigan, because I knew it had access to the MDM telescopes (one of the M’s stood for Michigan, the other MIT, with the D for Dartmouth) and because I was getting married. My wife is an historian, and we needed a university that was good in both our fields.

When I got to Michigan, I was ready to do research. I wanted to do more on shell galaxies, and low surface brightness galaxies in general. I had had enough coursework, I reckoned; I was ready to DO science. So I was somewhat taken aback that they wanted me to do two more years of graduate coursework in astronomy.

Some of the physics arrogance had inevitably been incorporated into my outlook. To a physicist, all other fields are trivial. They are just particular realizations of some subset of physics. Chemistry is just applied atomic physics. Biology barely even counts as science, and those parts that do could be derived from physics, in principle. As mere subsets of physics, any other field can and will be picked up trivially.

After two years of graduate coursework in astronomy, I had the epiphany that the field was not trivial. There were excellent reasons, both practical and historical, why it was a separate field. I had been wrong to presume otherwise.

Modern physicists are not afflicted by this epiphany. That bad attitude I was guilty of persists and is remarkably widespread. I am frequently confronted by young physicists eager to mansplain my own field to me, who casually assume that I am ignorant of subjects that I wrote papers on before they started reading the literature, and who equate a disagreement with their interpretation on any subject with ignorance on my part. This is one place the fields diverge enormously. In physics, if it appears in a textbook, it must be true. In astronomy, we recognize that we’ve been wrong about the universe so many times, we’ve learned to be tolerant of interpretations that initially sound absurd. Today’s absurdity may be tomorrow’s obvious fact. Physicists don’t share this history, and often fail to distinguish interpretation from fact, much less cope with the possibility that a single set of facts may admit multiple interpretations.

Cosmology has often been a leader in being wrong, and consequently enjoyed a shady reputation in both physics and astronomy for much of the 20th century. When I started on the faculty at the University of Maryland in 1998, there was no graduate course in the subject. This seemed to me to be an obvious gap to fill, so I developed one. Some of the senior astronomy faculty expressed concern as to whether this could be a rigorous 3 credit graduate course, and sent a neutral representative to discuss the issue with me. He was satisfied. As would be any cosmologist – I was teaching LCDM before most other cosmologists had admitted it was a thing.

At that time, 1998, my wife was also a new faculty member at John Carroll University. They held a welcome picnic, which I attended as the spouse. So I strike up a conversation with another random spouse who is also standing around looking similarly out of place. Ask him what he does. “I’m a physicist.” Ah! common ground – what do you work on? “Cosmology and dark matter.” I was flabbergasted. How did I not know this person? It was Glenn Starkman, and this was my first indication that sometime in the preceding decade, cosmology had become an..

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Triton Station by Tritonstation - 1d ago

I haven’t written here since late January, which not coincidentally was early in the Spring semester. Let’s just say it was… eventful. Mostly in an administrative way, which is neither a good way, nor an interesting way.

Not that plenty interesting hasn’t happened. I had a great visit to Aachen for the conference Dark Matter & Modified Gravity. Lots of emphasis on the philosophy of science, as well as history and sociology. Almost enough to make me think there is hope for the future. Almost. From there I visited CP3 in Odense where I gave both a science talk and a public talk at the Anarkist beer & food lab. It was awesome – spoke to a packed house in a place that was clearly used as a venue for rock concerts most of the time. People actually came out on a crappy night in February and paid a cover to hear about science!

I’d love to simply write my Aachen talk here, or the public Odense talk, and I should, but – writing takes a lot longer than talking. I’m continually amazed at how inefficient human communication is. Writing is painfully slow, and while I go to great lengths to write clearly and compellingly, I don’t always succeed. Even when I do, reading comprehension does not seem to be on an upward trajectory in the internet age. I routinely get accused of ignoring this or that topic by scientists too lazy to do a literature search wherein they would find I had written a paper on that. This has gotten so bad that it is currently a fad to describe as natural a phenomenon I explicitly showed over 20 years ago was the opposite of natural in LCDM. Faith in dark matter overpowers reason.

So many stories to tell, so little time to tell them. Some are positive. But far too many are the sordid sort of human behavior overriding the ideals of science. Self awareness is in short supply, and objectivity seems utterly forgotten as a concept, let alone a virtue. Many scientists no longer seem to appreciate the distinction between an a priori prediction and a post-hoc explanation pulled out of one’s arse when confronted with confounding evidence.

Consequently, I have quite intentionally refrained from ranting about bad scientific behavior too much, mostly in a mistaken but habitual “if you can’t say anything nice” sort of way. Which is another reason I have been quiet of late: I really don’t like to speak ill of my colleagues, even when they deserve it. There is so much sewage masquerading as science that I’m holding my nose while hoping it flows away under the bridge.

So, to divert myself, I have been dabbling in art. I am not a great artist by any means, but I’ve had enough people tell me “I’d buy that!” that I finally decided to take them at their word (silly, I know) and open a Zazzle store. Which immediately wants me to add links to it, which I find myself unprepared to do. I have had an academic website for a long time (since 1996, which is forever in internet years) but it seems really inappropriate to put them there. So I’m putting them here because this is the only place I’ve got readily available.

So the title “shameless commercialism” is quite literal. I hadn’t meant to advertise it here at all. Just find I need a web page, stat! It ain’t like I’ve even had time to stock the store – it is a lot more fun to do science than write it up; similarly, it is a lot more fun to create art than it is to market it. So there is only the one inaugural item so far, an Allosaurus on a T-shirt. Seems to fit the mood of the past semester.

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There is a tendency when teaching science to oversimplify its history for the sake of getting on with the science. How it came to be isn’t necessary to learn it. But to do science requires a proper understanding of the process by which it came to be.

The story taught to cosmology students seems to have become: we didn’t believe in the cosmological constant (Λ), then in 1998 the Type Ia supernovae (SN) monitoring campaigns detected accelerated expansion, then all of a sudden we did believe in Λ. The actual history was, of course, rather more involved – to the point where this oversimplification verges on disingenuous. There were many observational indications of Λ that were essential in paving the way.

Modern cosmology starts in the early 20th century with the recognition that the universe should be expanding or contracting – a theoretical inevitability of General Relativity that Einstein initially tried to dodge by inventing the cosmological constant – and is expanding in fact, as observationally established by Hubble and Slipher and many others since. The Big Bang was largely considered settled truth after the discovery of the existence of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) in 1964.

The CMB held a puzzle, as it quickly was shown to be too smooth. The early universe was both isotropic and homogeneous. Too homogeneous. We couldn’t detect the density variations that could grow into galaxies and other immense structures. Though such density variations are now well measured as temperature fluctuations that are statistically well described by the acoustic power spectrum, the starting point was that these fluctuations were a disappointing no-show. We should have been able to see them much sooner, unless something really weird was going on…

That something weird was non-baryonic cold dark matter (CDM). For structure to grow, it needed the helping hand of the gravity of some unseen substance. Normal matter matter did not suffice. The most elegant cosmology, the Einstein-de Sitter universe, had a mass density Ωm= 1. But the measured abundances of the light elements were only consistent with the calculations of big bang nucleosynthesis if normal matter amounted to only 5% of Ωm = 1. This, plus the need to grow structure, led to the weird but seemingly unavoidable inference that the universe must be full of invisible dark matter. This dark matter needed to be some slow moving, massive particle that does not interact with light nor reside within the menagerie of particles present in the Standard Model of Particle Physics.

CDM and early universe Inflation were established in the 1980s. Inflation gave a mechanism that drove the mass density to exactly one (elegant!), and CDM gave us hope for enough mass to get to that value. Together, they gave us the Standard CDM (SCDM) paradigm with Ωm = 1.000 and H0 = 50 km/s/Mpc.

I was there when SCDM failed.

It is hard to overstate the ferver with which the SCDM paradigm was believed. Inflation required that the mass density be exactly one; Ωm < 1 was inconceivable. For an Einstein-de Sitter universe to be old enough to contain the oldest stars, the Hubble constant had to be the lower of the two (50 or 100) commonly discussed at that time. That meant that H0 > 50 was Right Out. We didn’t even discuss Λ. Λ was Unmentionable. Unclean.

SCDM was Known, Khaleesi.

Λ had attained unmentionable status in part because of its origin as Einstein’s greatest blunder, and in part through its association with the debunked Steady State model. But serious mention of it creeps back into the literature by 1990. The first time I personally heard Λ mentioned as a serious scientific possibility was by Yoshii at a conference in 1993. Yoshii based his argument on a classic cosmological test, N(m) – the number of galaxies as a function of how faint they appeared. The deeper you look, the more you see, in a way that depends on the intrinsic luminosity of galaxies, and how they fill space. Look deep enough, and you begin to trace the geometry of the cosmos.

At this time, one of the serious problems confronting the field was the faint blue galaxies problem. There were so many faint galaxies on the sky, it was incredibly difficult to explain them all. Yoshii made a simple argument. To get so many galaxies, we needed a big volume. The only way to do that in the context of the Robertson-Walker metric that describes the geometry of the universe is if we have a large cosmological constant, Λ. He was arguing for ΛCDM five years before the SN results.

Lambda? We don’t need no stinking Lambda!

Yoshii was shouted down. NO! Galaxies evolve! We don’t need no stinking Λ! In retrospect, Yoshii & Peterson (1995) looks like a good detection of Λ. Perhaps Yoshii & Peterson also deserve a Nobel prize?

Indeed, there were many hints that Λ (or at least low Ωm) was needed, e.g., the baryon catastrophe in clusters, the power spectrum of IRAS galaxies, the early appearance of bound structures, the statistics of gravitational lenses, and so on. Certainly by the mid-90s it was clear that we were not going to make it to Ωm = 1. Inflation was threatened – it requires Ωm = 1 – or at least a flat geometry: Ωm+ΩΛ = 1.

SCDM was in crisis.

A very influential 1995 paper by Ostriker & Steinhardt did a lot to launch ΛCDM. I was impressed by the breadth of data Ostriker & Steinhardt discussed, all of which demanded low Ωm. I thought the case for Λ was less compelling, as it hinged on the age problem in a way that might also have been solved, at that time, by simply having an open universe (low Ωm with no Λ). This would ruin Inflation, but I wasn’t bothered by that. I expect they were. Regardless, they definitely made that case for ΛCDM three years before the supernovae results. Their arguments were accepted by almost everyone who was paying attention, including myself. I heard Ostriker give a talk around this time during which he was asked “what cosmology are you assuming?” to which he replied “the right one.” Called the “concordance” cosmology by Ostriker & Steinhardt, ΛCDM had already achieved the status of most-favored cosmology by the mid-90s.

A simplified version of the diagram of Ostriker & Steinhardt (1995) illustrating just a few of the constraints they discussed. Direct measurements of the expansion rate, mass density, and ages of the oldest stars excluded SCDM, instead converging on a narrow window – what we now call ΛCDM.

Ostriker & Steinhardt neglected to mention an important prediction of Λ: not only should the universe expand, but that expansion rate should accelerate! In 1995, that sounded completely absurd. People had looked for such an effect, and claimed not to see it. So I wrote a brief note pointing out the predicted acceleration of the expansion rate. I meant it in a bad way: how crazy would it be if the expansion of the universe was accelerating?! This was an obvious and inevitable consequence of ΛCDM that was largely being swept under the rug at that time.

I mean[t], surely we could live with Ωm < 1 but no Λ. Can’t we all just get along? Not really, as it turned out. I remember Mike Turner pushing the SN people very hard in Aspen in 1997 to Admit Λ. He had an obvious bias: as an Inflationary cosmologist, he had spent the previous decade castigating observers for repeatedly finding Ωm < 1. That’s too little mass, you fools! Inflation demands Ωm = 1.000! Look harder!

By 1997, Turner had, like many cosmologists, finally wrapped his head around the fact that we weren’t going to find enough mass for Ωm = 1. This was a huge problem for Inflation. The only possible solution, albeit an ugly one, was if Λ made up the difference. So there he was at Aspen, pressuring the people who observed supernova to Admit Λ. One, in particular, was Richard Ellis, a great and accomplished astronomer who had led the charge in shouting down Yoshii. They didn’t yet have enough data to Admit Λ. Not.Yet.

By 1998, there were many more high redshift SNIa. Enough to see Λ. This time, after the long series of results only partially described above, we were intellectually prepared to accept it – unlike in 1993. Had the SN experiments been conducted five years earlier, and obtained exactly the same result, they would not have been awarded the Nobel prize. They would instead have been dismissed as a trick of astrophysics: the universe evolves, metallicity was lower at earlier times, that made SN then different from now, they evolve and so cannot be used as standard candles. This sounds silly now, as we’ve figured out how to calibrate for intrinsic variations in the luminosities of Type Ia SN, but that is absolutely how we would have reacted in 1993, and no amount of improvements in the method would have convinced us. This is exactly what we did with faint galaxy counts: galaxies evolve; you can’t hope to understand that well enough to constrain cosmology. Do you ever hear them cited as evidence for Λ?

Great as the supernovae experiments to measure the metric genuinely were, they were not a discovery so much as a confirmation of what cosmologists had already decided to believe. There was no singular discovery that changed the way we all thought. There was a steady drip, drip, drip of results pointing towards Λ all through the ’90s – the age problem in which the oldest stars appeared to be older than the universe in which they reside, the early appearance of massive clusters and galaxies, the power spectrum of galaxies from redshift surveys that preceded Sloan, the statistics of gravitational lenses, and the repeated measurement of 1/4 < Ωm < 1/3 in a large variety of independent ways – just to name a few. By the mid-90’s, SCDM was dead. We just refused to bury it until we could accept ΛCDM as a replacement. That was what the Type Ia SN results really provided: a fresh and dramatic reason to accept the accelerated expansion that we’d already come to terms with privately but had kept hidden in the closet.

Note that the acoustic power spectrum of temperature fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background (as opposed to the mere existence of the highly uniform CMB) plays no role in this history. That’s because temperature fluctuations hadn’t yet been measured beyond their rudimentary detection by COBE. COBE demonstrated that temperature fluctuations did indeed exist (finally!) as they must, but precious little beyond that. Eventually, after the settling of much dust, COBE was recognized as one of many reasons why Ωm ≠ 1, but it was neither the most clear nor most convincing reason at that time. Now, in the 21st century, the acoustic power spectrum provides a great way to constrain what all the parameters of ΛCDM have to be, but it was a bit player in its development. The water there was carried by traditional observational cosmology using general purpose optical telescopes in a great variety of different ways, combined with a deep astrophysical understanding of how stars, galaxies, quasars and the whole menagerie of objects found in the sky work. All the vast knowledge incorporated in textbooks like those by Harrison, by Peebles, and by Peacock – knowledge that often seems to be lacking in scientists trained in the post-WMAP era.

Despite being a late arrival, the CMB power spectrum measured in 2000 by Boomerang and 2003 by WMAP did one important new thing to corroborate the ΛCDM picture. The supernovae data didn’t detect accelerated expansion so much as exclude the deceleration we had nominally expected. The data were also roughly consistent with a coasting universe (neither accelerating nor decelerating); the case for acceleration only became clear when we assumed that the geometry of the universe was flat (Ωm+ΩΛ = 1). That didn’t have to work out, so it was a great success of the paradigm when the location of the first peak of the power spectrum appeared in exactly the right place for a flat FLRW geometry.

The consistency of these data have given ΛCDM an air of invincibility among cosmologists. But a modern reconstruction of the Ostriker & Steinhardt diagram leaves zero room remaining – hence the tension between H0 = 73 measured directly and H0 = 67 from multiparameter CMB fits.

Constraints from the acoustic power spectrum of the CMB overplotted on the direct measurements from the plot above. Initially in great consistency with those measurement, the best fit CMB values have steadily wandered away from the most-favored region of parameter space that established ΛCDM in the first place. This is most apparent in the tension with H0.

In cosmology, we are accustomed to having to find our way through apparently conflicting data. The difference between an expansion rate of 67 and 73 seems trivial given that the field was long riven – in living memory – by the dispute between 50 and 100. This gives rise to the expectation that the current difference is just a matter of some subtle systematic error somewhere. That may well be correct. But it is also conceivable that FLRW is inadequate to describe the universe, and we have been driven to the objectively bizarre parameters of ΛCDM because it happens to be the best approximation that can be obtained to what is really going on when we insist on approximating it with FLRW.

Though a logical possibility, that last sentence will likely drive many cosmologists to reach for their torches and pitchforks. Before killing the messenger, we should remember that we once endowed SCDM with the same absolute certainty we now attribute to ΛCDM. I was there, 3,000 internet years ago, when SCDM failed. There is nothing so sacred in ΛCDM that it can’t suffer the same fate, as has every single cosmology ever devised by humanity.

Today, we still lack definitive knowledge of either dark matter or dark energy. These add up to 95% of the mass-energy of the universe according to ΛCDM. These dark materials must exist.

It is Known, Khaleesi.

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This Thanksgiving, I’d highlight something positive. Recently, Bob Sanders wrote a paper pointing out that gas rich galaxies are strong tests of MOND. The usual fit parameter, the stellar mass-to-light ratio, is effectively negligible when gas dominates. The MOND prediction follows straight from the gas distribution, for which there is no equivalent freedom. We understand the 21 cm spin-flip transition well enough to relate observed flux directly to gas mass.

In any human endeavor, there are inevitably unsung heroes who carry enormous amounts of water but seem to get no credit for it. Sanders is one of those heroes when it comes to the missing mass problem. He was there at the beginning, and has a valuable perspective on how we got to where we are. I highly recommend his books, The Dark Matter Problem: A Historical Perspective and Deconstructing Cosmology.

In bright spiral galaxies, stars are usually 80% or so of the mass, gas only 20% or less. But in many dwarf galaxies,  the mass ratio is reversed. These are often low surface brightness and challenging to observe. But it is a worthwhile endeavor, as their rotation curve is predicted by MOND with extraordinarily little freedom.

Though gas rich galaxies do indeed provide an excellent test of MOND, nothing in astronomy is perfectly clean. The stellar mass-to-light ratio is an irreducible need-to-know parameter. We also need to know the distance to each galaxy, as we do not measure the gas mass directly, but rather the flux of the 21 cm line. The gas mass scales with flux and the square of the distance (see equation 7E7), so to get the gas mass right, we must first get the distance right. We also need to know the inclination of a galaxy as projected on the sky in order to get the rotation to which we’re fitting right, as the observed line of sight Doppler velocity is only sin(i) of the full, in-plane rotation speed. The 1/sin(i) correction becomes increasingly sensitive to errors as i approaches zero (face-on galaxies).

The mass-to-light ratio is a physical fit parameter that tells us something meaningful about the amount of stellar mass that produces the observed light. In contrast, for our purposes here, distance and inclination are “nuisance” parameters. These nuisance parameters can be, and generally are, measured independently from mass modeling. However, these measurements have their own uncertainties, so one has to be careful about taking these measured values as-is. One of the powerful aspects of Bayesian analysis is the ability to account for these uncertainties to allow for the distance to be a bit off the measured value, so long as it is not too far off, as quantified by the measurement uncertainties. This is what current graduate student Pengfei Li did in Li et al. (2018). The constraints on MOND are so strong in gas rich galaxies that often the nuisance parameters cannot be ignored, even when they’re well measured.

To illustrate what I’m talking about, let’s look at one famous example, DDO 154. This galaxy is over 90% gas. The stars (pictured above) just don’t matter much. If the distance and inclination are known, the MOND prediction for the rotation curve follows directly. Here is an example of a MOND fit from a recent paper:

The MOND fit to DDO 154 from Ren et al. (2018). The black points are the rotation curve data, the green line is the Newtonian expectation for the baryons, and the red line is their MOND fit.

This is terrible! The MOND fit – essentially a parameter-free prediction – misses all of the data. MOND is falsified. If one is inclined to hate MOND, as many seem to be, then one stops here. No need to think further.

If one is familiar with the ups and downs in the history of astronomy, one might not be so quick to dismiss it. Indeed, one might notice that the shape of the MOND prediction closely tracks the shape of the data. There’s just a little difference in scale. That’s kind of amazing for a theory that is wrong, especially when it is amplifying the green line to predict the red one: it needn’t have come anywhere close.

Here is the fit to the same galaxy using the same data [already] published in Li et al.:

The MOND fit to DDO 154 from Li et al. (2018) using the same data as above, as tabulated in SPARC.

Now we have a good fit, using the same data! How can this be so?

I have not checked what Ren et al. did to obtain their MOND fits, but having done this exercise myself many times, I recognize the slight offset they find as a typical consequence of holding the nuisance parameters fixed. What if the measured distance is a little off?

Distance estimates to DDO 154 in the literature range from 3.02 Mpc to 6.17 Mpc. The formally most accurate distance measurement is 4.04 ± 0.08 Mpc. In the fit shown here, we obtained 3.87 ± 0.16 Mpc. The error bars on these distances overlap, so they are the same number, to measurement accuracy. These data do not falsify MOND. They demonstrate that it is sensitive enough to tell the difference between 3.8 and 4.1 Mpc.

One will never notice this from a dark matter fit. Ren et al. also make fits with self-interacting dark matter (SIDM). The nifty thing about SIDM is that it makes quasi-constant density cores in dark matter halos. Halos of this form are not predicted by “ordinary” cold dark matter (CDM), but often give better fits than either MOND of the NFW halos of dark matter-only CDM simulations. For this galaxy, Ren et al. obtain the following SIDM fit.

The SIDM fit to DDO 154 from Ren et al.

This is a great fit. Goes right through the data. That makes it better, right?

Not necessarily. In addition to the mass-to-light ratio (and the nuisance parameters of distance and inclination), dark matter halo fits have [at least] two additional free parameters to describe the dark matter halo, such as its mass and core radius. These parameters are highly degenerate – one can obtain equally good fits for a range of mass-to-light ratios and core radii: one makes up for what the other misses. Parameter degeneracy of this sort is usually a sign that there is too much freedom in the model. In this case, the data are adequately described by one parameter (the MOND fit M*/L, not counting the nuisances in common), so using three (M*/L, Mhalo, Rcore) is just an exercise in fitting a French curve. There is ample freedom to fit the data. As a consequence, you’ll never notice that one of the nuisance parameters might be a tiny bit off.

In other words, you can fool a dark matter fit, but not MOND. Erwin de Blok and I demonstrated this 20 years ago. A common myth at that time was that “MOND is guaranteed to fit rotation curves.” This seemed patently absurd to me, given how it works: once you stipulate the distribution of baryons, the rotation curve follows from a simple formula. If the two don’t match, they don’t match. There is no guarantee that it’ll work. Instead, it can’t be forced.

As an illustration, Erwin and I tried to trick it. We took two galaxies that are identical in the Tully-Fisher plane (NGC 2403 and UGC 128) and swapped their mass distribution and rotation curve. These galaxies have the same total mass and the same flat velocity in the outer part of the rotation curve, but the detailed distribution of their baryons differs. If MOND can be fooled, this closely matched pair ought to do the trick. It does not.

An attempt to fit MOND to a hybrid galaxy with the rotation curve of NGC 2403 and the baryon distribution of UGC 128. The mass-to-light ratio is driven to unphysical values (6 in solar units), but an acceptable fit is not obtained.

Our failure to trick MOND should not surprise anyone who bothers to look at the math involved. There is a one-to-one relation between the distribution of the baryons and the resulting rotation curve. If there is a mismatch between them, a fit cannot be obtained.

We also attempted to play this same trick on dark matter. The standard dark matter halo fitting function at the time was the pseudo-isothermal halo, which has a constant density core. It is very similar to the halos of SIDM and to the cored dark matter halos produced by baryonic feedback in some simulations. Indeed, that is the point of those efforts: they  are trying to capture the success of cored dark matter halos in fitting rotation curve data.

A fit to the hybrid galaxy with a cored (pseudo-isothermal) dark matter halo. A satisfactory fit is readily obtained.

Dark matter halos with a quasi-constant density core do indeed provide good fits to rotation curves. Too good. They are easily fooled, because they have too many degrees of freedom. They will fit pretty much any plausible data that you throw at them. This is why the SIDM fit to DDO 154 failed to flag distance as a potential nuisance. It can’t. You could double (or halve) the distance and still find a good fit.

This is why parameter degeneracy is bad. You get lost in parameter space. Once lost there, it becomes impossible to distinguish between successful, physically meaningful fits and fitting epicycles.

Astronomical data are always subject to improvement. For example, the THINGS project obtained excellent data for a sample of nearby galaxies. I made MOND fits to all the THINGS (and other) data for the MOND review Famaey & McGaugh (2012). Here’s the residual diagram, which has been on my web page for many years:

Residuals of MOND fits from Famaey & McGaugh (2012).

These are, by and large, good fits. The residuals have a well defined peak centered on zero.  DDO 154 was one of the THINGS galaxies; lets see what happens if we use those data.

The rotation curve of DDO 154 from THINGS (points with error bars). The Newtonian expectation for stars is the green line; the gas is the blue line. The red line is the MOND prediction. Not that the gas greatly outweighs the stars beyond 1.5 kpc; the stellar mass-to-light ratio has extremely little leverage in this MOND fit.

The first thing one is likely to notice is that the THINGS data are much better resolved than the previous generation used above. The first thing I noticed was that THINGS had assumed a distance of 4.3 Mpc. This was prior to the measurement of 4.04, so lets just start over from there. That gives the MOND prediction shown above.

And it is a prediction. I haven’t adjusted any parameters yet. The mass-to-light ratio is set to the mean I expect for a star forming stellar population, 0.5 in solar units in the Sptizer 3.6 micron band. D=4.04 Mpc and i=66 as tabulated by THINGS. The result is pretty good considering that no parameters have been harmed in the making of this plot. Nevertheless, MOND overshoots a bit at large radii.

Constraining the inclinations for gas rich dwarf galaxies like DDO 154 is a bit of a nightmare. Literature values range from 20 to 70 degrees. Seriously. THINGS itself allows the inclination to vary with radius; 66 is just a typical value. Looking at the fit Pengfei obtained, i=61. Let’s try that.

MOND fit to the THINGS data for DDO 154 with the inclination adjusted to the value found by Li et al. (2018).

The fit is now satisfactory. One tweak to the inclination, and we’re done. This tweak isn’t even a fit to these data; it was adopted from Pengfei’s fit to the above data. This tweak to the inclination is comfortably within any plausible assessment of the uncertainty in this quantity. The change in sin(i) corresponds to a mere 4% in velocity. I could probably do a tiny bit better with further adjustment – I have left both the distance and the mass-to-light ratio fixed – but that would be a meaningless exercise in statistical masturbation. The result just falls out: no muss, no fuss.

Hence the point Bob Sanders makes. Given the distribution of gas, the rotation curve follows. And it works, over and over and over, within the bounds of the uncertainties on the nuisance parameters.

One cannot do the same exercise with dark matter. It has ample ability to fit rotation curve data, once those are provided, but zero power to predict it. If all had been well with ΛCDM, the rotation curves of these galaxies would..

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In the last post, I noted some of the sociological overtones underpinning attitudes about dark matter and modified gravity theories. I didn’t get as far as the more scientifically  interesting part, which  illustrates a common form of reasoning in physics.

About modified gravity theories, Bertone & Tait state

“the only way these theories can be reconciled with observations is by effectively, and very precisely, mimicking the behavior of cold dark matter on cosmological scales.”

Leaving aside just which observations need to be mimicked so precisely (I expect they mean power spectrum; perhaps they consider this to be so obvious that it need not be stated), this kind of reasoning is both common and powerful – and frequently correct. Indeed, this is exactly the attitude I expressed in my review a few years ago for the Canadian Journal of Physics, quoted in the image above. I get it. There are lots of positive things to be said for the standard cosmology.

This upshot of this reasoning is, in effect, that “cosmology works so well that non-baryonic dark matter must exist.” I have sympathy for this attitude, but I also remember many examples in the history of cosmology where it has gone badly wrong. There was a time, not so long ago, that the matter density had to be the critical value, and the Hubble constant had to be 50 km/s/Mpc. By and large, it is the same community that insisted on those falsehoods with great intensity that continues to insist on conventionally conceived cold dark matter with similarly fundamentalist insistence.

I think it is an overstatement to say that the successes of cosmology (as we presently perceive them) prove the existence of dark matter. A more conservative statement is that the ΛCDM cosmology is correct if, and only if, dark matter exists. But does it? That’s a separate question, which is why laboratory searches are so important – including null results. It was, after all, the null result of Michelson & Morley that ultimately put an end to the previous version of an invisible aetherial medium, and sparked a revolution in physics.

Here I point out that the same reasoning asserted by Bertone & Tait as a slam dunk in favor of dark matter can just as accurately be asserted in favor of MOND. To directly paraphrase the above statement:

“the only way ΛCDM can be reconciled with observations is by effectively, and very precisely, mimicking the behavior of MOND on galactic scales.”

This is a terrible problem for dark matter. Even if it were true, as is often asserted, that MOND only fits rotation curves, this would still be tantamount to a falsification of dark matter by the same reasoning applied by Bertone & Tait.

Lets look at just one example, NGC 1560:

The rotation curve of NGC 1560 (points) together with the Newtonian expectation (black line) and the MOND fit (blue line). Data from Begeman et al. (1991) and Gentile et al. (2010).

MOND fits the details of this rotation curve in excruciating detail. It provides just the right amount of boost over the Newtonian expectation, which varies from galaxy to galaxy. Features in the baryon distribution are reflected in the rotation curve. That is required in MOND, but makes no sense in dark matter, where the excess velocity over the Newtonian expectation is attributed to a dynamically hot, dominant, quasi-spherical dark matter halo. Such entities cannot support the features commonly seen in thin, dynamically cold disks. Even if they could, there is no reason that features in the dominant dark matter halo should align with those in the disk: a sphere isn’t a disk. In short, it is impossible to explain this with dark matter – to the extent that anything is ever impossible for the invisible.

NGC 1560 is a famous case because it has such an obvious feature. It is common to dismiss this as some non-equilibrium fluke that should simply be ignored. That is always a dodgy path to tread, but might be OK if it were only this galaxy. But similar effects are seen over and over again, to the point that they earned an empirical moniker: Renzo’s Rule. Renzo’s rule is known to every serious student of rotation curves, but has not informed the development of most dark matter theory. Ignoring this information is like leaving money on the table.

MOND fits not just NGC 1560, but very nearly* every galaxy we measure. It does so with excruciatingly little freedom. The only physical fit parameter is the stellar mass-to-light ratio. The gas fraction of NGC 1560 is 75%, so M*/L plays little role. We understand enough about stellar populations to have an idea what to expect; MOND fits return mass-to-light ratios that compare well with the normalization, color dependence, and band-pass dependent scatter expected from stellar population synthesis models.

The mass-to-light ratio from MOND fits (points) in the blue (left panel) and near-infrared (right panel) pass-bands plotted against galaxy color (blue to the left, red to the right). From the perspective of stellar populations, one expects more scatter and a steeper color dependence in the blue band, as observed. The lines are stellar population models from Bell et al. (2003). These are completely independent, and have not been fit to the data in any way. One could hardly hope for better astrophysical agreement.

One can also fit rotation curve data with dark matter halos. These require a minimum of three parameters to the one of MOND. In addition to M*/L, one also needs at least two parameters to describe the dark matter halo of each galaxy – typically some characteristic mass and radius. In practice, one finds that such fits are horribly degenerate: one can not cleanly constrain all three parameters, much less recover a sensible distribution of M*/L. One cannot construct the plot above simply by asking the data what it wants as one can with MOND.

The “disk-halo degeneracy” in dark matter halo fits to rotation curves has been much discussed in the literature. Obsessed over, dismissed, revived, and ultimately ignored without satisfactory understanding. Well, duh. This approach uses three parameters per galaxy when it takes only one to describe the data. Degeneracy between the excess fit parameters is inevitable.

From a probabilistic perspective, there is a huge volume of viable parameter space that could (and should) be occupied by galaxies composed of dark matter halos plus luminous galaxies. Two identical dark matter halos might host very different luminous galaxies, so would have rotation curves that differed with the baryonic component. Two similar looking galaxies might reside in rather different dark matter halos, again having rotation curves that differ.

The probabilistic volume in MOND is much smaller. Absolutely tiny by comparison. There is exactly one and only one thing each rotation curve can do: what the particular distribution of baryons in each galaxy says it should do. This is what we observe in Nature.

The only way ΛCDM can be reconciled with observations is by effectively, and very precisely, mimicking the behavior of MOND on galactic scales. There is a vast volume of parameter space that the rotation curves of galaxies could, in principle, inhabit. The naive expectation was exponential disks in NFW halos. Real galaxies don’t look like that. They look like MOND. Magically, out of the vast parameter space available to galaxies in the dark matter picture, they only ever pick the tiny sub-volume that very precisely mimics MOND.

The ratio of probabilities is huge. So many dark matter models are possible (and have been mooted over the years) that it is indefinably huge. The odds of observing MOND-like phenomenology in a ΛCDM universe is practically zero. This amounts to a practical falsification of dark matter.

I’ve never said dark matter is falsified, because I don’t think it is a falsifiable concept. It is like epicycles – you can always fudge it in some way. But at a practical level, it was falsified a long time ago.

That is not to say MOND has to be right. That would be falling into the same logical trap that says ΛCDM has to be right. Obviously, both have virtues that must be incorporated into whatever the final answer may be. There are some efforts in this direction, but by and large this is not how science is being conducted at present. The standard script is to privilege those data that conform most closely to our confirmation bias, and pour scorn on any contradictory narrative.

In my assessment, the probability of ultimate success through ignoring inconvenient data is practically zero. Unfortunately, that is the course upon which much of the field is currently set.

*There are of course exceptions: no data are perfect, so even the right theory will get it wrong once in a while. The goof rate for MOND fits is about what I expect: rare, but  more frequent for lower quality data. Misfits are sufficiently rare that to obsess over them is to refuse to see the forest for a few outlying trees.

Here’s a residual plot of MOND fits. See the peak at right? That’s the forest. See the tiny tail to one side? That’s an outlying tree.

Residuals of MOND rotation curve fits from Famaey & McGaugh (2012).
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A colleague points out to me a recent preprint by Bertone & Tait titled A New Era in the Quest for Dark Matter. Most of the narrative is a conventionalist response to the failure of experimental dark matter searches, posing a legitimate question in this context. Where do we take it from here?

From Bloom County by Berkley Breathed.

There is one brief paragraph mentioning and dismissing the possibility that what we call the dark matter problem might instead be some form of new dynamics. This is completely pro forma, and I wouldn’t have given it a second thought had my colleague not griped to me about it. It contains the following gem:

“The success of these efforts however remained limited at most to rotation curves of galaxies, and it is today clear that the only way these theories can be reconciled with observations is by effectively, and very precisely, mimicking the behavior of cold dark matter on cosmological scales.”

This is enormously revealing about the sociological attitudes in the field. Specifically, the attitude common among  particle physicists who work on dark matter. Now, that’s a lot of people, and there are many individual exceptions to the general attitude I’m about to describe. But these are exceedingly common themes, so lets break it down.

There are two distinct issues packed into this one sentence. The first amounts to the oft-repeated talking point, “MOND fits rotation curves but does nothing else.”

“…these efforts however remained limited at most to rotation curves of galaxies…”

(emphasis added.) This is simply incorrect.

Nevertheless, this sentiment has been asserted so many times by so many otherwise reasonable and eminent scientists that the innocent bystander may be forgiven for thinking there is some truth to this statement. There is not. Indeed, it is a perfect example of the echo chamber effect – someone said it without checking their facts, then someone else repeated it, and so on until everyone knows this to be true. Everyone says so!

To be sure, I shared the same concern initially. Difference is, I did the fact checking. It surprised the bejeepers out of me to find that the vast majority of observations that we usually ascribe to dark matter could just as well be explained by MOND. Often better, and with less effort. This is not to say that MOND is always better, of course. But there is so much more to it that I’m not going to review it yet again here.

I’m shocked – SHOCKED – to find MOND going on in this universe!

If only there were some way for scientists to communicate. In writing. Preserved in archival journals. Reviews, even…

A Tale of Two Paradigms: the Mutual Incommensurability of ΛCDM and MOND

The Third Law of Galactic Rotation

Modified Newtonian Dynamics (MOND): Observational Phenomenology and Relativistic Extensions

Modified Newtonian Dynamics as an Alternative to Dark Matter

Testing the Hypothesis of Modified Dynamics with Low Surface Brightness Galaxies and Other Evidence

Testing the Dark Matter Hypothesis with Low Surface Brightness Galaxies and Other Evidence

or if those are too intimidating, review talks at conferences

Extended Theories of Gravity

The Trials and Tribulations of Modern Cosmology: The Good, the Bad, and the Just Plain Ugly

Observational Constraints on the Acceleration Discrepancy Problem

Dynamical Constraints on Disk Galaxy Formation

How Galaxies Don’t Form

ETC.

The world has many experts on dark matter. I am one of them. It has rather fewer experts on MOND. I happen to be one of those, because I made the effort to learn about it. Being an expert on dark matter does not make one an expert on MOND – it’s painful to realize you’re at the wrong peak in the Dunning-Kruger curve. Becoming an expert is hard and time consuming, so I appreciate why many people don’t want to invest their time that way – MOND is a fringe idea, after all. Or so I thought, until I bothered to learn about it. The more I learned, the more I realized it could not so easily be dismissed.

But MOND can easily be dismissed if you remain ignorant of it! This attitude is what I call the arrogance of ignorance. Many scientists who are experts on dark matter don’t know what MOND is really, or what all it does and does not do successfully. They don’t need to! (arrogance). It can’t possibly be true! (ignorance).

The result is a profoundly unscientific status quo. If you hear someone assert something to the effect that “MOND fits rotation curves and nothing else” then you know they simply don’t know what they’re talking about.

I haven’t yet broken down the second part of statement above, but I’ve probably outraged enough people for one post. That’s OK – the shoe deserves to be on the other foot. Being outraged is what is to be an astronomer listening to particle physicists opine about dark matter. Their general attitude is that astronomers can’t possibly have anything to teach them about the subject. Never mind that 100% of the evidence is astronomical in nature, and will remain so until we get a laboratory detection. Good luck with that.

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Like the Milky Way, our nearest giant neighbor, Andromeda (aka M31), has several dozen dwarf satellite galaxies. A few of these were known and had measured velocity dispersions at the time of my work with Joe Wolf, as discussed previously. Also like the Milky Way, the number of known objects has grown rapidly in recent years – thanks in this case largely to the PAndAS survey.

PAndAS imaged the area around M31 and M33, finding many individual red giant stars. These trace out the debris from interactions and mergers as small dwarfs are disrupted and consumed by their giant host. They also pointed up the existence of previously unknown dwarf satellites.

The PAndAS survey field. Dwarf satellites are circled.

As the PAndAS survey started reporting the discovery of new dwarf satellites around Andromeda, it occurred to me that this provided the opportunity to make genuine a priori predictions. These are the gold standard of the scientific method. We could use the observed luminosity and size of the newly discovered dwarfs to predict their velocity dispersions.

I tried to do this for both ΛCDM and MOND. I will not discuss the ΛCDM case much, because it can’t really be done. But it is worth understanding why this is.

In ΛCDM, the velocity dispersion is determined by the dark matter halo. This has only a tenuous connection to the observed stars, so just knowing how big and bright a dwarf is doesn’t provide much predictive power about the halo. This can be seen from this figure by Tollerud et al (2011):

Virial mass of the dark matter halo as a function of galaxy luminosity. Dwarfs satellites reside in the wide colored band of low luminosities.

This graph is obtained by relating the number density of galaxies (an observed quantity) to that of the dark matter halos in which they reside (a theoretical construct). It is highly non-linear, deviating strongly from the one-to-one line we expected early on. There is no reason to expect this particular relation; it is imposed on us by the fact that the observed luminosity function of galaxies is rather flat while the predicted halo mass function is steep. Nowadays, this is usually called the missing satellite problem, but this is a misnomer as it pervades the field.

Addressing the missing satellites problem would be another long post, so lets just accept that the relation between mass and light has to follow something like that illustrated above. If a dwarf galaxy has a luminosity of a million suns, one can read off the graph that it should live in a dark halo with a mass of about 1010 M☉. One could use this to predict the velocity dispersion, but not very precisely, because there’s a big range corresponding to that luminosity (the bands in the figure). It could be as much as 1011 M☉ or as little as 109 M☉. This corresponds to a wide range of velocity dispersions. This wide range is unavoidable because of the difference in the luminosity function and halo mass function. Small variations in one lead to big variations in the other, and some scatter in dark halo properties is unavoidable.

Consequently, we only have a vague range of expected velocity dispersions in ΛCDM. In practice, we never make this prediction. Instead, we compare the observed velocity dispersion to the luminosity and say “gee, this galaxy has a lot of dark matter” or “hey, this one doesn’t have much dark matter.” There’s no rigorously testable prior.

In MOND, what you see is what you get. The velocity dispersion has to follow from the observed stellar mass. This is straightforward for isolated galaxies: M* ∝ σ4 – this is essentially the equivalent of the Tully-Fisher relation for pressure supported systems. If we can estimate the stellar mass from the observed luminosity, the predicted velocity dispersion follows.

Many dwarf satellites are not isolated in the MONDian sense: they are subject to the external field effect (EFE) from their giant hosts. The over-under for whether the EFE applies is the point when the internal acceleration from all the stars of the dwarf on each other is equal to the external acceleration from orbiting the giant host. The amplitude of the discrepancy in MOND depends on how low the total acceleration is relative to the critical scale a0. The external field in effect adds some acceleration that wouldn’t otherwise be there, making the discrepancy less than it would be for an isolated object. This means that two otherwise identical dwarfs may be predicted to have different velocity dispersions is they are or are not subject to the EFE. This is a unique prediction of MOND that has no analog in ΛCDM.

It is straightforward to derive the equation to predict velocity dispersions in the extreme limits of isolated (aex ≪ ain < a0) or EFE dominated (ain ≪ aex < a0) objects. In reality, there are many objects for which ain ≈ aex, and no simple formula applies. In practice, we apply the formula that more nearly applies, and pray that this approximation is good enough.

There are many other assumptions and approximations that must be made in any theory: that an object is spherical, isotropic, and in dynamical equilibrium. All of these must fail at some level, but it is the last one that is the most serious concern. In the case of the EFE, one must also make the approximation that the object is in equilibrium at the current level of the external field. That is never true, as both the amplitude and the vector of the external field vary as a dwarf orbits its host. But it might be an adequate approximation if this variation is slow. In the case of a circular orbit, only the vector varies. In general the orbits are not known, so we make the instantaneous approximation and once again pray that it is good enough. There is a fairly narrow window between where the EFE becomes important and where we slip into the regime of tidal disruption, but lets plow ahead and see how far we can get, bearing in mind that the EFE is a dynamical variable of which we only have a snapshot.

To predict the velocity dispersion in the isolated case, all we need to know is the luminosity and a stellar mass-to-light ratio. Assuming the dwarfs of Andromeda to be old stellar populations, I adopted a V-band mass-to-light ratio of 2 give or take a factor of 2. That usually dominates the uncertainty, though the error in the distance can sometimes impact the luminosity at a level that impacts the prediction.

To predict the velocity dispersion in the EFE case, we again need the stellar mass, but now also need to know the size of the stellar system and the intensity of the external field to which it is subject. The latter depends on the mass of the host galaxy and the distance from it to the dwarf. This latter quantity is somewhat fraught: it is straightforward to measure the projected distance on the sky, but we need the 3D distance – how far in front or behind each dwarf is as well as its projected distance from the host. This is often a considerable contributor to the error budget. Indeed, some dwarfs may be inferred to be in the EFE regime for the low end of the range of adopted stellar mass-to-light ratio, and the isolated regime for the high end.

In this fashion, we predicted velocity dispersions for the dwarfs of Andromeda. We in this case were Milgrom and myself. I had never collaborated with him before, and prefer to remain independent. But I also wanted to be sure I got the details described above right. Though it wasn’t much work to make the predictions once the preliminaries were established, it was time consuming to collect and vet the data. As we were writing the paper, velocity dispersion measurements started to appear. People like Michelle Collins, Erik Tollerud, and Nicolas Martin were making follow-up observations, and publishing velocity dispersion for the objects we were making predictions for. That was great, but they were too good – they were observing and publishing faster than we could write!

Nevertheless, we managed to make and publish a priori predictions for 10 dwarfs before any observational measurements were published. We also made blind predictions for the other known dwarfs of Andromeda, and checked the predicted velocity dispersions against all measurements that we could find in the literature. Many of these predictions were quickly tested by on-going programs (i.e., people were out to measure velocity dispersions, whether we predicted them or not). Enough data rolled in that we were soon able to write a follow-up paper testing our predictions.

Nailed it. Good data were soon available to test the predictions for 8 of the 10* a priori cases. All 8 were consistent with our predictions. I was particularly struck by the case of And XXVIII, which I had called out as perhaps the best test. It was isolated, so the messiness of the EFE didn’t apply, and the uncertainties were low. Moreover, the predicted velocity dispersion was low – a good deal lower than broadly expected in ΛCDM: 4.3 km/s, with an uncertainty just under 1 km/s. Two independent observations were subsequently reported. One found 4.9 ± 1.6 km/s, the other 6.6 ± 2.1 km/s, both in good agreement within the uncertainties.

We made further predictions in the second paper as people had continued to discover new dwarfs. These also came true. Here is a summary plot for all of the dwarfs of Andromeda:

The velocity dispersions of the dwarf satellites of Andromeda. Each numbered box corresponds to one dwarf (x=1 is for And I and so on). Measured velocity dispersions have a number next to them that is the number of stars on which the measurement is based. MOND predictions are circles: green if isolated, open if the EFE applies. Points appear within each box in the order they appeared in the literature, from left to right. The vast majority of Andromeda’s dwarfs are consistent with MOND (large green circles). Two cases are ambiguous (large yellow circles), having velocity dispersions based only a few stars. Only And V appears to be problematic (large red circle).

MOND works well for And I, And II, And III, And VI, And VII, And IX, And X, And XI, And XII, And XIII, And XIV, And XV, And XVI, And XVII, And XVIII, And XIX, And XX, And XXI, And XXII, And XXIII, And XXIV, And XXV, And XXVIII, And XXIX, And XXXI, And XXXII, and And XXXIII. There is one problematic case: And V. I don’t know what is going on there, but note that systematic errors frequently happen in astronomy. It’d be strange if there weren’t at least one goofy case.

Nevertheless, the failure of And V could be construed as a falsification of MOND. It ought to work in every single case. But recall the discussion of assumptions and uncertainties above. Is falsification really the story these data tell?

We do have experience with various systematic errors. For example, we predicted that the isolated dwarfs spheroidal Cetus should have a velocity dispersion in MOND of 8.2 km/s. There was already a published measurement of 17 ± 2 km/s, so we reported that MOND was wrong in this case by over 3σ. Or at least we started to do so. Right before we submitted that paper, a new measurement appeared: 8.3 ± 1 km/s. This is an example of how the data can sometimes change by rather more than the formal error bars suggest is possible. In this case, I suspect the original observations lacked the spectral resolution to resolve the velocity dispersion. At any rate, the new measurement (8.3 km/s) was somewhat more consistent with our prediction (8.2 km/s).

The same predictions cannot even be made in ΛCDM. The velocity data can always be fit once they are in hand. But there is no agreed method to predict the velocity dispersion of a dwarf from its observed luminosity. As discussed above, this should not even be possible: there is too much scatter in the halo mass-stellar mass relation at these low masses.

An unsung predictive success of MOND absent from the graph above is And IV. When And IV was discovered in the general direction of Andromeda, it was assumed to be a new dwarf satellite – hence the name. Milgrom looked at the velocities reported for this object, and said it had to be a background galaxy. No way it could be a dwarf satellite – at least not in MOND. I see no reason why it couldn’t have been in ΛCDM. It is absent from the graph above, because it was subsequently confirmed to be much farther away (7.2 Mpc vs. 750 kpc for Andromeda).

The box for And XVII is empty because this system is manifestly out of equilibrium. It is more of a stellar stream than a dwarf, appearing as a smear in the PAndAS image rather than as a self-contained dwarf. I do not recall what the story with the other missing object (And VIII) is.

While writing the follow-up paper, I also noticed that there were a number of Andromeda dwarfs that were photometrically indistinguishable: basically the same in terms of size and stellar mass. But some were isolated while others were subject to the EFE. MOND predicts that the EFE cases should have lower velocity dispersion than the isolated equivalents.

The velocity dispersions of the dwarfs of Andromeda, highlighting photometrically matched pairs – dwarfs that should be indistinguishable, but aren’t because of the EFE.

And XXVIII (isolated) has a higher velocity dispersion than its near-twin And XVII (EFE). The same effect might be acting in And XVIII (isolated) and And XXV (EFE). This is clear if we accept the higher velocity dispersion measurement for And XVIII, but an independent measurements begs to differ. The former has more stars, so is probably more reliable, but we should be cautious. The effect is not clear in And XVI (isolated) and And XXI (EFE), but the difference in the prediction is small and the uncertainties are large.

An aggressive person might argue that the pairs of dwarfs is a positive detection of the EFE. I don’t think the data for the matched pairs warrant that, at least not yet. On the other hand, the appropriate use of the EFE was essential to all the predictions, not just the matched pairs.

The positive detection of the EFE is important, as it is a unique prediction of MOND. I see no way to tune ΛCDM galaxy simulations to mimic this effect. Of course, there was a  very recent time when it seemed impossible for them to mimic the isolated predictions of MOND. They claim to have come a long way in that regard.

But that’s what we’re stuck with: tuning ΛCDM to make it look like MOND. This is why a priori predictions are important. There is ample flexibility to explain just about anything with dark matter. What we can’t seem to do is predict the same things that MOND successfully predicts… predictions that are both quantitative and very specific. We’re not arguing that dwarfs in general live in ~15 or 30 km/s halos, as we must in ΛCDM. In MOND we can say this dwarf will have this velocity dispersion and that dwarf will have that velocity dispersion. We can distinguish between 4.9 and 7.3 km/s. And we can do it over and over and over. I see no way to do the equivalent in ΛCDM, just as I see no way to explain the acoustic power spectrum of the CMB in MOND.

This is not to say there are no problematic cases for MOND. Read, Walker, & Steger have recently highlighted the matched pair of Draco and Carina as an issue. And they are – though here I already have reason to suspect Draco is out of equilibrium, which makes it challenging to analyze. Whether it is actually out of equilibrium or not is a separate question.

I am not thrilled that we are obliged to..

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I have been wanting to write about dwarf satellites for a while, but there is so much to tell that I didn’t think it would fit in one post. I was correct. Indeed, it was worse than I thought, because my own experience with low surface brightness (LSB) galaxies in the field is a necessary part of the context for my perspective on the dwarf satellites of the Local Group. These are very different beasts – satellites are pressure supported, gas poor objects in orbit around giant hosts, while field LSB galaxies are rotating, gas rich galaxies that are among the most isolated known. However, so far as their dynamics are concerned, they are linked by their low surface density.

Where we left off with the dwarf satellites, circa 2000, Ursa Minor and Draco remained problematic for MOND, but the formal significance of these problems was not great. Fornax, which had seemed more problematic, was actually a predictive success: MOND returned a low mass-to-light ratio for Fornax because it was full of young stars. The other known satellites, Carina, Leo I, Leo II, Sculptor, and Sextans, were all consistent with MOND.

The Sloan Digital Sky Survey resulted in an explosion in the number of satellites galaxies discovered around the Milky Way. These were both fainter and lower surface brightness than the classical dwarfs named above. Indeed, they were often invisible as objects in their own right, being recognized instead as groupings of individual stars that shared the same position in space and – critically – velocity. They weren’t just in the same place, they were orbiting the Milky Way together. To give short shrift to a long story, these came to be known as ultrafaint dwarfs.

Ultrafaint dwarf satellites have fewer than 100,000 stars. That’s tiny for a stellar system. Sometimes they had only a few hundred. Most of those stars are too faint to see directly. Their existence is inferred from a handful of red giants that are actually observed. Where there are a few red giants orbiting together, there must be a source population of fainter stars. This is a good argument, and it is likely true in most cases. But the statistics we usually rely on become dodgy for such small numbers of stars: some of the ultrafaints that have been reported in the literature are probably false positives. I have no strong opinion on how many that might be, but I’d be really surprised if it were zero.

Nevertheless, assuming the ultrafaints dwarfs are self-bound galaxies, we can ask the same questions as before. I was encouraged to do this by Joe Wolf, a clever grad student at UC Irvine. He had a new mass estimator for pressure supported dwarfs that we decided to apply to this problem. We used the Baryonic Tully-Fisher Relation (BTFR) as a reference, and looked at it every which-way. Most of the text is about conventional effects in the dark matter picture, and I encourage everyone to read the full paper. Here I’m gonna skip to the part about MOND, because that part seems to have been overlooked in more recent commentary on the subject.

For starters, we found that the classical dwarfs fall along the extrapolation of the BTFR, but the ultrafaint dwarfs deviate from it.

Fig. 1 from McGaugh & Wolf (2010, annotated). The BTFR defined by rotating galaxies (gray points) extrapolates well to the scale of the dwarf satellites of the Local Group (blue points are the classical dwarf satellites of the Milky Way; red points are satellites of Andromeda) but not to the ultrafaint dwarfs (green points). Two of the classical dwarfs also fall off of the BTFR: Draco and Ursa Minor.

The deviation is not subtle, at least not in terms of mass. The ultrataints had characteristic circular velocities typical of systems 100 times their mass! But the BTFR is steep. In terms of velocity, the deviation is the difference between the 8 km/s typically observed, and the ~3 km/s needed to put them on the line. There are a large number of systematic effects errors that might arise, and all act to inflate the characteristic velocity. See the discussion in the paper if you’re curious about such effects; for our purposes here we will assume that the data cannot simply be dismissed as the result of systematic errors, though one should bear in mind that they probably play a role at some level.

Taken at face value, the ultrafaint dwarfs are a huge problem for MOND. An isolated system should fall exactly on the BTFR. These are not isolated systems, being very close to the Milky Way, so the external field effect (EFE) can cause deviations from the BTFR. However, these are predicted to make the characteristic internal velocities lower than the isolated case. This may in fact be relevant for the red points that deviate a bit in the plot above, but we’ll return to that at some future point. The ultrafaints all deviate to velocities that are too high, the opposite of what the EFE predicts.

The ultrafaints falsify MOND! When I saw this, all my original confirmation bias came flooding back. I had pursued this stupid theory to ever lower surface brightness and luminosity. Finally, I had found where it broke. I felt like Darth Vader in the original Star Wars:

I have you now!

The first draft of my paper with Joe included a resounding renunciation of MOND. No way could it escape this!

But…

I had this nagging feeling I was missing something. Darth should have looked over his shoulder. Should I?

Surely I had missed nothing. Many people are unaware of the EFE, just as we had been unaware that Fornax contained young stars. But not me! I knew all that. Surely this was it.

Nevertheless, the nagging feeling persisted. One part of it was sociological: if I said MOND was dead, it would be well and truly buried. But did it deserve to be? The scientific part of the nagging feeling was that maybe there had been some paper that addressed this, maybe a decade before… perhaps I’d better double check.

Indeed, Brada & Milgrom (2000) had run numerical simulations of dwarf satellites orbiting around giant hosts. MOND is a nonlinear dynamical theory; not everything can be approximated analytically. When a dwarf satellite is close to its giant host, the external acceleration of the dwarf falling towards its host can exceed the internal acceleration of the stars in the dwarf orbiting each other – hence the EFE. But the EFE is not a static thing; it varies as the dwarf orbits about, becoming stronger on closer approach. At some point, this variation becomes to fast for the dwarf to remain in equilibrium. This is important, because the assumption of dynamical equilibrium underpins all these arguments. Without it, it is hard to know what to expect short of numerically simulating each individual dwarf. There is no reason to expect them to remain on the equilibrium BTFR.

Brada & Milgrom suggested a measure to gauge the extent to which a dwarf might be out of equilibrium. It boils down to a matter of timescales. If the stars inside the dwarf have time to adjust to the changing external field, a quasi-static EFE approximation might suffice. So the figure of merit becomes the ratio of internal orbits per external orbit. If the stars inside a dwarf are swarming around many times for every time it completes an orbit around the host, then they have time to adjust. If the orbit of the dwarf around the host is as quick as the internal motions of the stars within the dwarf, not so much. At some point, a satellite becomes a collection of associated stars orbiting the host rather than a self-bound object in its own right.

Deviations from the BTFR (left) and the isophotal shape of dwarfs (right) as a function of the number of internal orbits a star at the half-light radius makes for every orbit a dwarf makes around its giant host (Fig. 7 of McGaugh & Wolf 2010).

Brada & Milgrom provide the formula to compute the ratio of orbits, shown in the figure above. The smaller the ratio, the less chance an object has to adjust, and the more subject it is to departures from equilibrium. Remarkably, the amplitude of deviation from the BTFR – the problem I could not understand initially – correlates with the ratio of orbits. The more susceptible a dwarf is to disequilibrium effects, the farther it deviated from the BTFR.

This completely inverted the MOND interpretation. Instead of falsifying MOND, the data now appeared to corroborate the non-equilibrium prediction of Brada & Milgrom. The stronger the external influence, the more a dwarf deviated from the equilibrium expectation. In conventional terms, it appeared that the ultrafaints were subject to tidal stirring: their internal velocities were being pumped up by external influences. Indeed, the originally problematic cases, Draco and Ursa Minor, fall among the ultrafaint dwarfs in these terms. They can’t be in equilibrium in MOND.

If the ultrafaints are out of equilibrium, the might show some independent evidence of this. Stars should leak out, distorting the shape of the dwarf and forming tidal streams. Can we see this?

A definite maybe:

The shapes of some ultrafaint dwarfs. These objects are so diffuse that they are invisible on the sky; their shape is illustrated by contours or heavily smoothed grayscale pseudo-images.

The dwarfs that are more subject to external influence tend to be more elliptical in shape. A pressure supported system in equilibrium need not be perfectly round, but one departing from equilibrium will tend to get stretched out. And indeed, many of the ultrafaints look Messed Up.

I am not convinced that all this requires MOND. But it certainly doesn’t falsify it. Tidal disruption can happen in the dark matter context, but it happens differently. The stars are buried deep inside protective cocoons of dark matter, and do not feel tidal effects much until most of the dark matter is stripped away. There is no reason to expect the MOND measure of external influence to apply (indeed, it should not), much less that it would correlate with indications of tidal disruption as seen above.

This seems to have been missed by more recent papers on the subject. Indeed, Fattahi et al. (2018) have reconstructed very much the chain of thought I describe above. The last sentence of their abstract states “In many cases, the resulting velocity dispersions are inconsistent with the predictions from Modified Newtonian Dynamics, a result that poses a possibly insurmountable challenge to that scenario.” This is exactly what I thought. (I have you now.) I was wrong.

Fattahi et al. are wrong for the same reasons I was wrong. They are applying equilibrium reasoning to a non-equilibrium situation. Ironically, the main point of the their paper is that many systems can’t be explained with dark matter, unless they are tidally stripped – i.e., the result of a non-equilibrium process. Oh, come on. If you invoke it in one dynamical theory, you might want to consider it in the other.

To quote the last sentence of our abstract from 2010, “We identify a test to distinguish between the ΛCDM and MOND based on the orbits of the dwarf satellites of the Milky Way and how stars are lost from them.” In ΛCDM, the sub-halos that contain dwarf satellites are expected to be on very eccentric orbits, with all the damage from tidal interactions with the host accruing during pericenter passage. In MOND, substantial damage may accrue along lower eccentricity orbits, leading to the expectation of more continuous disruption.

Gaia is measuring proper motions for stars all over the sky. Some of these stars are in the dwarf satellites. This has made it possible to estimate orbits for the dwarfs, e.g., work by Amina Helmi and Josh Simon. So far, the results are definitely mixed. There are more dwarfs on low eccentricity orbits than I had expected in ΛCDM, but there are still plenty that are on high eccentricity orbits. Whichdwarfs have been tidally affected by interactions with their hosts is far from clear.

In short, reality is messy. It is going to take a long time to sort these matters out. These are early days.

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A quick note to put the acceleration discrepancy in perspective.

The acceleration discrepancy, as Bekenstein called it, more commonly called the missing mass or dark matter problem, is the deviation of dynamics from those of Newton and Einstein. The quantity D is the amplitude of the discrepancy, basically the ratio of total mass to that which is visible. The need for dark matter – the discrepancy – only manifests at very low accelerations, of order 10-10 m/s/s. That’s one part in 1011 of what you feel standing on the Earth.

The mass discrepancy as a function of acceleration. There is no discrepancy (D=1) at high acceleration: everything is normal in the solar system and at the highest accelerations probed. The discrepancy only manifests at very low accelerations.

Astronomical data span enormous, indeed, astronomical, ranges. This is why astronomers so frequently use logarithmic plots. The abscissa in the plot above spans 25 orders of magnitude, from the lowest accelerations measured in the outskirts of galaxies to the highest conceivable on the surface of a neutron star on the brink of collapse into a black hole. If we put this on a linear scale, you’d see one point (the highest) and all the rest would be crammed into x=0.

Galileo established that the we live in a regime where the acceleration due to gravity is effectively constant; g = 9.8 m/s/s. This suffices to describe the trajectories of projectiles (like baseballs) familiar to everyday experience. At least is suffices to describe the gravity; air resistance plays a non-negligible role as well. But you don’t need Newton’s Universal Law of Gravity; you just need to know everything experiences a downward acceleration of one gee.

As we move to higher altitude and on into space, this ceases to suffice. As Newton taught us, the strength of the gravitational attraction between two bodies decreases as the distance between them increases. The constant acceleration recognized by Galileo was a special case of a more general phenomenon. The surface of the Earth is a [very nearly] constant distance from its center, so gee is [very nearly] constant. Get off the Earth, and that changes.

In the plot above, the acceleration we experience here on the surface of the Earth lands pretty much in the middle of the range known to astronomical observation. This is normal to us. The orbits of the planets in the solar system stretch to lower accelerations: the surface gravity of the Earth exceeds the centripetal force it takes to keep Earth in its orbit around the sun. This decreases outward in the solar system, with Neptune experiencing less than 10-5 m/s/s in its orbit.

We understand the gravity in the solar system extraordinarily well. We’ve been watching the planets orbit for ages. The inner planets, in particular, are so well known that subtle effects have been known for ages. Most famous is the tiny excess precession of the perihelion of the orbit of Mercury, first noted by Le Verrier in 1859 but not satisfactorily* explained until Einstein applied General Relativity to the problem in 1916.

The solar system probes many decades of acceleration accurately, but there are many decades of phenomena beyond the reach of the solar system, both to higher and lower accelerations. Two objects orbiting one another intensely enough for the energy loss due to the emission of gravitational waves to have a measurable effect on their orbit are the two neutron stars that compose the binary pulsar of Hulse & Taylor. Their orbit is highly eccentric, pulling an acceleration of about 270 m/s/s at periastron (closest passage). The gravitational dynamics of the system are extraordinarily well understood, and Hulse & Taylor were awarded the 1993 Nobel prize in physics for this observation that indirectly corroborated the existence of gravitational waves.

The mass-energy tensor was dancing a monster jig as the fabric of space-time was rent asunder, I can tell you!

Direct detection of gravitational waves was first achieved by LIGO in 2015 (the 2017 Nobel prize). The source of these waves was the merger of a binary pair of black holes, a calamity so intense that it converted the equivalent of 3 solar masses into the energy carried away as gravitational waves. Imagine two 30 solar mass black holes orbiting each other a few hundred km apart 75 times per second just before merging – that equates to a centripetal acceleration of nearly 1011 m/s/s.

We seem to understand gravity well in this regime.

The highest acceleration illustrated in the figure above is the maximum surface gravity of a neutron star, which is just a hair under 1013 m/s/s. Anything more than this collapses to a black hole. The surface of a neutron star is not a place that suffers large mountains to exist, even if by “large” you mean “ant sized.” Good luck walking around in an exoskeleton there! Micron scale crustal adjustments correspond to monster starquakes.

High-end gravitational accelerations are 20 orders of magnitude removed from where the acceleration discrepancy appears. Dark matter is a problem restricted to the regime of tiny accelerations, of order 1 Angstrom/s/s. That isn’t much, but it is roughly what holds a star in its orbit within a galaxy. Sometimes less.

Galaxies show a large and clear acceleration discrepancy. The mob of black points is the radial acceleration relation, compressed to fit on the same graph with the high acceleration phenomena. Whatever happens, happens suddenly at this specific scale.

I also show clusters of galaxies, which follow a similar but offset acceleration relation. The discrepancy sets in a littler earlier for them (and with more scatter, but that may simply be a matter of lower precision). This offset from galaxies is a small matter on the scale considered here, but it is a serious one if we seek to modify dynamics at a universal acceleration scale. Depending on how one chooses to look at this aspect of the problem, the data for clusters are either tantalizingly close to the [far superior] data for galaxies, or they are impossibly far removed. Regardless of which attitude proves to be less incorrect, it is clear that the missing mass phenomena is restricted to low accelerations. Everything is normal until we reach the lowest decade or two of accelerations probed by current astronomical data – and extragalactic data are the only data that test gravity in this regime.

We have no other data that probe the very low acceleration regime. The lowest acceleration probe we have with solar system accuracy is from the Pioneer spacecraft. These suffer an anomalous acceleration whose source was debated for many years. Was it some subtle asymmetry in the photon pressure due thermal radiation from the spacecraft? Or new physics?

Though the effect is tiny (it is shown in the graph above, but can you see it?), it would be enormous for a MOND effect. MOND asymptotes to Newton at high accelerations. Despite the many AU Pioneer has put between itself and home, it is still in a regime 4 orders of magnitude above where MOND effects kick in. This would only be perceptible if the asymptotic approach to the Newtonian regime were incredibly slow. So slow, in fact, that it should be perceptible in the highly accurate data for the inner planets. Nowadays, the hypothesis of asymmetric photon pressure is widely accepted, which just goes to show how hard it is to construct experiments to test MOND. Not only do you have to get far enough away from the sun to probe the MOND regime (about a tenth of a light-year), but you have to control for how hard itty-bitty photons push on your projectile.

That said, it’d still be great experiment. Send a bunch of test particles out of the solar system at high speed on a variety of ballistic trajectories. They needn’t be much more than bullets with beacons to track them by. It would take a heck of a rocket to get them going fast enough to return an answer within a lifetime, but rocket scientists love a challenge to go real fast.

*Le Verrier suggested that the effect could be due to a new planet, dubbed Vulcan, that orbited the sun interior to the orbit of Mercury. In the half century prior to Einstein settling the issue, there were many claims to detect this Victorian form of dark matter.

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The Milky Way and its nearest giant neighbor Andromeda (M31) are surrounded by a swarm of dwarf satellite galaxies. Aside from relatively large beasties like the Large Magellanic Cloud or M32, the majority of these are the so-called dwarf spheroidals. There are several dozen examples known around each giant host, like the Fornax dwarf pictured above.

Dwarf Spheroidal (dSph) galaxies are ellipsoidal blobs devoid of gas that typically contain a million stars, give or take an order of magnitude. Unlike globular clusters, that may have a similar star count, dSphs are diffuse, with characteristic sizes of hundreds of parsecs (vs. a few pc for globulars). This makes them among the lowest surface brightness systems known.

This subject has a long history, and has become a major industry in recent years. In addition to the “classical” dwarfs that have been known for decades, there have also been many comparatively recent discoveries, often of what have come to be called “ultrafaint” dwarfs. These are basically dSphs with luminosities less than 100,000 suns, sometimes being comprised of as little as a few hundred stars. New discoveries are being made still, and there is reason to hope that the LSST will discover many more. Summed up, the known dwarf satellites are proverbial drops in the bucket compared to their giant hosts, which contain hundreds of billions of stars. Dwarfs could rain in for a Hubble time and not perturb the mass budget of the Milky Way.

Nevertheless, tiny dwarf Spheroidals are excellent tests of theories like CDM and MOND. Going back to the beginning, in the early ’80s, Milgrom was already engaged in a discussion about the predictions of his then-new theory (before it was even published) with colleagues at the IAS, where he had developed the idea during a sabbatical visit. They were understandably skeptical, preferring – as many still do – to believe that some unseen mass was the more conservative hypothesis. Dwarf spheroidals came up even then, as their very low surface brightness meant low acceleration in MOND. This in turn meant large mass discrepancies. If you could measure their dynamics, they would have large mass-to-light ratios. Larger than could be explained by stars conventionally, and larger than the discrepancies already observed in bright galaxies like Andromeda.

This prediction of Milgrom’s – there from the very beginning – is important because of how things change (or don’t). At that time, Scott Tremaine summed up the contrasting expectation of the conventional dark matter picture:

“There is no reason to expect that dwarfs will have more dark matter than bright galaxies.” *

This was certainly the picture I had in my head when I first became interested in low surface brightness (LSB) galaxies in the mid-80s. At that time I was ignorant of MOND; my interest was piqued by the argument of Disney that there could be a lot of as-yet undiscovered LSB galaxies out there, combined with my first observing experiences with the then-newfangled CCD cameras which seemed to have a proclivity for making clear otherwise hard-to-see LSB features. At the time, I was interested in finding LSB galaxies. My interest in what made them rotate came  later.

The first indication, to my knowledge, that dSph galaxies might have large mass discrepancies was provided by Marc Aaronson in 1983. This tentative discovery was hugely important, but the velocity dispersion of Draco (one of the “classical” dwarfs) was based on only 3 stars, so was hardly definitive. Nevertheless, by the end of the ’90s, it was clear that large mass discrepancies were a defining characteristic of dSphs. Their conventionally computed M/L went up systematically as their luminosity declined. This was not what we had expected in the dark matter picture, but was, at least qualitatively, in agreement with MOND.

My own interests had focused more on LSB galaxies in the field than on dwarf satellites like Draco. Greg Bothun and Jim Schombert had identified enough of these to construct a long list of LSB galaxies that served as targets my for Ph.D. thesis. Unlike the pressure-supported ellipsoidal blobs of stars that are the dSphs, the field LSBs we studied were gas rich, rotationally supported disks – mostly late type galaxies (Sd, Sm, & Irregulars). Regardless of composition, gas or stars, low surface density means that MOND predicts low acceleration. This need not be true conventionally, as the dark matter can do whatever the heck it wants. Though I was blissfully unaware of it at the time, we had constructed the perfect sample for testing MOND.

Having studied the properties of our sample of LSB galaxies, I developed strong ideas about their formation and evolution. Everything we had learned – their blue colors, large gas fractions, and low star formation rates – suggested that they evolved slowly compared to higher surface brightness galaxies. Star formation gradually sputtered along, having a hard time gathering enough material to make stars in their low density interstellar media. Perhaps they even formed late, an idea I took a shining to in the early ’90s. This made two predictions: field LSB galaxies should be less strongly clustered than bright galaxies, and should spin slower at a given mass.

The first prediction follows because the collapse time of dark matter halos correlates with their larger scale environment. Dense things collapse first and tend to live in dense environments. If LSBs were low surface density because they collapsed late, it followed that they should live in less dense environments.

I didn’t know how to test this prediction. Fortunately, fellow postdoc and office mate in Cambridge at the time, Houjun Mo, did. It came true. The LSB galaxies I had been studying were clustered like other galaxies, but not as strongly. This was exactly what I expected, and I thought sure we were on to something. All that remained was to confirm the second prediction.

At the time, we did not have a clear idea of what dark matter halos should be like. NFW halos were still in the future. So it seemed reasonable that late forming halos should have lower densities (lower concentrations in the modern terminology). More importantly, the sum of dark and luminous density was certainly less. Dynamics follow from the distribution of mass as Velocity2 ∝ Mass/Radius. For a given mass, low surface brightness galaxies had a larger radius, by construction. Even if the dark matter didn’t play along, the reduction in the concentration of the luminous mass should lower the rotation velocity.

Indeed, the standard explanation of the Tully-Fisher relation was just this. Aaronson, Huchra, & Mould had argued that galaxies obeyed the Tully-Fisher relation because they all had essentially the same surface brightness (Freeman’s law) thereby taking variation in the radius out of the equation: galaxies of the same mass all had the same radius. (If you are a young astronomer who has never heard of Freeman’s law, you’re welcome.) With our LSB galaxies, we had a sample that, by definition, violated Freeman’s law. They had large radii for a given mass. Consequently, they should have lower rotation velocities.

Up to that point, I had not taken much interest in rotation curves. In contrast, colleagues at the University of Groningen were all about rotation curves. Working with Thijs van der Hulst, Erwin de Blok, and Martin Zwaan, we set out to quantify where LSB galaxies fell in relation to the Tully-Fisher relation. I confidently predicted that they would shift off of it – an expectation shared by many at the time. They did not.

The Tully-Fisher relation: disk mass vs. flat rotation speed (circa 1996). Galaxies are binned by surface brightness with the highest surface brightness galaxies marked red and the lowest blue. The lines show the expected shift following the argument of Aaronson et al. Contrary to this expectation, galaxies of all surface brightnesses follow the same Tully-Fisher relation.

I was flummoxed. My prediction was wrong. That of Aaronson et al. was wrong. Poking about the literature, everyone who had made a clear prediction in the conventional context was wrong. It made no sense.

I spent months banging my head against the wall. One quick and easy solution was to blame the dark matter. Maybe the rotation velocity was set entirely by the dark matter, and the distribution of luminous mass didn’t come into it. Surely that’s what the flat rotation velocity was telling us? All about the dark matter halo?

Problem is, we measure the velocity where the luminous mass still matters. In galaxies like the Milky Way, it matters quite a lot. It does not work to imagine that the flat rotation velocity is set by some property of the dark matter halo alone. What matters to what we measure is the combination of luminous and dark mass. The luminous mass is important in high surface brightness galaxies, and progressively less so in lower surface brightness galaxies. That should leave some kind of mark on the Tully-Fisher relation, but it doesn’t.

Residuals from the Tully-Fisher relation as a function of size at a given mass. Compact galaxies are to the left, diffuse ones to the right. The red dashed line is what Newton predicts: more compact galaxies should rotate faster at a given mass. Fundamental physics? Tully-Fisher don’t care. Tully-Fisher don’t give a sh*t.

I worked long and hard to understand this in terms of dark matter. Every time I thought I had found the solution, I realized that it was a tautology. Somewhere along the line, I had made an assumption that guaranteed that I got the answer I wanted. It was a hopeless fine-tuning problem. The only way to satisfy the data was to have the dark matter contribution scale up as that of the luminous mass scaled down. The more stretched out the light, the more compact the dark – in exact balance to maintain zero shift in Tully-Fisher.

This made no sense at all. Over twenty years on, I have yet to hear a satisfactory conventional explanation. Most workers seem to assert, in effect, that “dark matter does it” and move along. Perhaps they are wise to do so.

Working on the thing can drive you mad.

As I was struggling with this issue, I happened to hear a talk by Milgrom. I almost didn’t go. “Modified gravity” was in the title, and I remember thinking, “why waste my time listening to that nonsense?” Nevertheless, against my better judgement, I went. Not knowing that anyone in the audience worked on either LSB galaxies or Tully-Fisher, Milgrom proceeded to derive the MOND prediction:

“The asymptotic circular velocity is determined only by the total mass of the galaxy: Vf4 = a0GM.”

In a few lines, he derived rather trivially what I had been struggling to understand for months. The lack of surface brightness dependence in Tully-Fisher was entirely natural in MOND. It falls right out of the modified force law, and had been explicitly predicted over a decade before I struggled with the problem.

I scraped my jaw off the floor, determined to examine this crazy theory more closely. By the time I got back to my office, cognitive dissonance had already started to set it. Couldn’t be true. I had more pressing projects to complete, so I didn’t think about it again for many moons.

When I did, I decided I should start by reading the original MOND papers. I was delighted to find a long list of predictions, many of them specifically to do with surface brightness. We had just collected fresh data on LSB galaxies, which provided a new window on the low acceleration regime. I had the data to finally falsify this stupid theory.

Or so I thought. As I went through the list of predictions, my assumption that MOND had to be wrong was challenged by each item. It was barely an afternoon’s work: check, check, check. Everything I had struggled for months to understand in terms of dark matter tumbled straight out of MOND.

I was faced with a choice. I knew this would be an unpopular result. I could walk away and simply pretend I had never run across it. That’s certainly how it had been up until then: I had been blissfully unaware of MOND and its perniciously successful predictions. No need to admit otherwise.

Had I realized just how unpopular it would prove to be, maybe that would have been the wiser course. But even contemplating such a course felt criminal. I was put in mind of Paul Gerhardt’s admonition for intellectual honesty:

“When a man lies, he murders some part of the world.”

Ignoring what I had learned seemed tantamount to just that. So many predictions coming true couldn’t be an accident. There was a deep clue here; ignoring it wasn’t going to bring us closer to the truth. Actively denying it would be an act of wanton vandalism against the scientific method.

Still, I tried. I looked long and hard for reasons not to report what I had found. Surely there must be some reason this could not be so?

Indeed, the literature provided many papers that claimed to falsify MOND. To my shock, few withstood critical examination. Commonly a straw man representing MOND was falsified, not MOND itself. At a deeper level, it was implicitly assumed that any problem for MOND was an automatic victory for dark matter. This did not obviously follow, so I started re-doing the analyses for both dark matter and MOND. More often than not, I found either that the problems for MOND were greatly exaggerated, or that the genuinely problematic cases were a problem for both theories. Dark matter has more flexibility to explain outliers, but outliers happen in astronomy. All too often the temptation was to refuse to see the forest for a few trees.

The first MOND analysis of the classical dwarf spheroidals provides a good example. Completed only a few years before I encountered the problem, these were low surface brightness systems that were deep in the MOND regime. These were gas poor, pressure supported dSph galaxies, unlike my gas rich, rotating LSB galaxies, but the critical feature was low surface brightness. This was the most directly comparable result. Better yet, the study had been made by two brilliant scientists (Ortwin Gerhard & David Spergel) whom I admire enormously. Surely this work would explain how my result was a mere curiosity.

Indeed, reading their abstract, it was clear that MOND did not work for the dwarf spheroidals. Whew: LSB systems where it doesn’t work. All I had to do was figure out why, so I read the paper.

As I read beyond the abstract, the answer became less and less clear. The results were all over the map. Two dwarfs (Sculptor and Carina) seemed unobjectionable in MOND. Two dwarfs (Draco and Ursa Minor) had mass-to-light ratios that were too high for stars, even in MOND. That is, there still appeared to be a need for dark matter even after MOND had been applied. One the flip side, Fornax had a mass-to-light ratio that was too low for the old stellar populations assumed to dominate dwarf spheroidals. Results all over the map are par for the course in astronomy, especially for a pioneering attempt like this. What were the uncertainties?

Milgrom wrote a rebuttal. By then, there were measured velocity dispersions for two more dwarfs. Of these seven dwarfs, he found that

“within just the quoted errors on the velocity dispersions and the luminosities, the MOND M/L values for all seven dwarfs are perfectly consistent with stellar values, with no need for dark matter.”

Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he? I determined to repeat the analysis and error propagation.

Mass-to-light ratios determined with MOND for eight dwarf spheroidals..
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