It’s early in the new year, so what better time to violate my own resolutions? I prefer to be forward-looking and not argue over petty details, or chase wayward butterflies. But sometimes the devil is in the details, and the occasional butterfly can be entertaining if distracting. Today’s butterfly is the galaxy AGC 114905, which has recently been in the news.

There are a couple of bandwagons here: one to rebrand very low surface brightness galaxies as ultradiffuse, and another to get overly excited when these types of galaxies appear to lack dark matter. The nomenclature is terrible, but that’s normal for astronomy so I would overlook it, except that in this case it gives the impression that there is some new population of galaxies behaving in an unexpected fashion, when instead it looks to me like the opposite is the case. The extent to which there are galaxies lacking dark matter is fundamental to our interpretation of the acceleration discrepancy (aka the missing mass problem), so bears closer scrutiny. The evidence for galaxies devoid of dark matter is considerably weaker than the current bandwagon portrays.

If it were just one butterfly (e.g., NGC 1052-DF2), I wouldn’t bother. Indeed, it was that specific case that made me resolve to ignore such distractions as a waste of time. I’ve seen this movie literally hundreds of times, I know how it goes:

  • Observations of this one galaxy falsify MOND!
  • Hmm, doing the calculation right, that’s what MOND predicts.
  • OK, but better data shrink the error bars and now MOND falsified.
  • Are you sure about…?
  • Yes. We like this answer, let’s stop thinking about it now.
  • As the data continue to improve, it approaches what MOND predicts.
  • <crickets>

Over and over again. DF44 is another example that has followed this trajectory, and there are many others. This common story is not widely known – people lose interest once they get the answer they want. Irrespective of whether we can explain this weird case or that, there is a deeper story here about data analysis and interpretation that seems not to be widely appreciated.

My own experience inevitably colors my attitude about this, as it does for us all, so let’s start thirty years ago when I was writing a dissertation on low surface brightness (LSB) galaxies. I did many things in my thesis, most of them well. One of the things I tried to do then was derive rotation curves for some LSB galaxies. This was not the main point of the thesis, and arose almost as an afterthought. It was also not successful, and I did not publish the results because I didn’t believe them. It wasn’t until a few years later, with improved data, analysis software, and the concerted efforts of Erwin de Blok, that we started to get a handle on things.

The thing that really bugged me at the time was not the Doppler measurements, but the inclinations. One has to correct the observed velocities by the inclination of the disk, 1/sin(i). The inclination can be constrained by the shape of the image and by the variation of velocities across the face of the disk. LSB galaxies presented raggedy images and messy velocity fields. I found it nigh on impossible to constrain their inclinations at the time, and it remains a frequent struggle to this day.

Here is an example of the LSB galaxy F577-V1 that I find lurking around on disk from all those years ago:

The LSB galaxy F577-V1 (B-band image, left) and the run of the eccentricity of ellipses fit to the atomic gas data (right).

A uniform disk projected on the sky at some inclination will have a fixed corresponding eccentricity, with zero being the limit of a circular disk seen perfectly face-on (i = 0). Do you see a constant value of the eccentricity in the graph above? If you say yes, go get your eyes checked.

What we see in this case is a big transition from a fairly eccentric disk to one that is more nearly face on. The inclination doesn’t have a sudden warp; the problem is that the assumption of a uniform disk is invalid. This galaxy has a bar – a quasi-linear feature that is common in many spiral galaxies that is supported by non-circular orbits. Even face-on, the bar will look elongated simply because it is. Indeed, the sudden change in eccentricity is one way to define the end of the bar, which the human eye-brain can do easily by looking at the image. So in a case like this, one might adopt the inclination from the outer points, and that might even be correct. But note that there are spiral arms along the outer edge that is visible to the eye, so it isn’t clear that even these isophotes are representative of the shape of the underlying disk. Worse, we don’t know what happens beyond the edge of the data; the shape might settle down at some other level that we can’t see.

This was so frustrating, I swore never to have anything to do with galaxy kinematics ever again. Over 50 papers on the subject later, all I can say is D’oh! Repeatedly.

Bars are rare in LSB galaxies, but it struck me as odd that we saw any at all. We discovered unexpectedly that they were dark matter dominated – the inferred dark halo outweighs the disk, even within the edge defined by the stars – but that meant that the disks should be stable against the formation of bars. My colleague Chris Mihos agreed, and decided to look into it. The answer was yes, LSB galaxies should be stable against bar formation, at least internally generated bars. Sometimes bars are driven by external perturbations, so we decided to simulate the close passage of a galaxy of similar mass – basically, whack it real hard and see what happens:

Simulation of an LSB galaxy during a strong tidal encounter with another galaxy. Closest approach is at t=24 in simulation units (between the first and second box). A linear bar does not form, but the model galaxy does suffer a strong and persistent oval distortion: all these images are shown face-on (i=0). From Mihos et al (1997).

This was a conventional simulation, with a dark matter halo constructed to be consistent with the observed properties of the LSB galaxy UGC 128. The results are not specific to this case; it merely provides numerical corroboration of the more general case that we showed analytically.

Consider the image above in the context of determining galaxy inclinations from isophotal shapes. We know this object is face-on because we can control our viewing angle in the simulation. However, we would not infer i=0 from this image. If we didn’t know it had been perturbed, we would happily infer a substantial inclination – in this case, easily as much as 60 degrees! This is an intentionally extreme case, but it illustrates how a small departure from a purely circular shape can be misinterpreted as an inclination. This is a systematic error, and one that usually makes the inclination larger than it is: it is possible to appear oval when face-on, but it is not possible to appear more face-on than perfectly circular.

Around the same time, Erwin and I were making fits to the LSB galaxy data – with both dark matter halos and MOND. By this point in my career, I had deeply internalized that the data for LSB galaxies were never perfect. So we sweated every detail, and worked through every “what if?” This was a particularly onerous task for the dark matter fits, which could do many different things if this or that were assumed – we discussed all the plausible possibilities at the time. (Subsequently, a rich literature sprang up discussing many unreasonable possibilities.) By comparison, the MOND fits were easy. They had fewer knobs, and in 2/3 of the cases they simply worked, no muss, no fuss.

For the other 1/3 of the cases, we noticed that the shape of the MOND-predicted rotation curves was usually right, but the amplitude was off. How could it work so often, and yet miss in this weird way? That sounded like a systematic error, and the inclination was the most obvious culprit, with 1/sin(i) making a big difference for small inclinations. So we decided to allow this as a fit parameter, to see whether a fit could be obtained, and judge how [un]reasonable this was. Here is an example for two galaxies:

UGC 1230 (left) and UGC 5005 (right). Ovals show the nominally measured inclination (i=22o for UGC 1230 and 41o for UGC 5005, respectively) and the MOND best-fit value (i=17o and 30o). From de Blok & McGaugh (1998).

The case of UGC 1230 is memorable to me because it had a good rotation curve, despite being more face-on than widely considered acceptable for analysis. And for good reason: the difference between 22 and 17 degrees make a huge difference to the fit, changing it from way off to picture perfect.

Rotation curve fits for UGC 1230 (top) and UGC 5005 (bottom) with the inclination fixed (left) and fit (right). From de Blok & McGaugh (1998).

What I took away from this exercise is how hard it is to tell the difference between inclination values for relatively face-on galaxies. UGC 1230 is obvious: the ovals for the two inclinations are practically on top of each other. The difference in the case of UGC 5005 is more pronounced, but look at the galaxy. The shape of the outer isophote where we’re trying to measure this is raggedy as all get out; this is par for the course for LSB galaxies. Worse, look further in – this galaxy has a bar! The central bar is almost orthogonal to the kinematic major axis. If we hadn’t observed as deeply as we had, we’d think the minor axis was the major axis, and the inclination was something even higher.

I remember Erwin quipping that he should write a paper on how to use MOND to determine inclinations. This was a joke between us, but only half so: using the procedure in this way would be analogous to using Tully-Fisher to measure distances. We would simply be applying an empirically established procedure to constrain a property of a galaxy – luminosity from line-width in that case of Tully-Fisher; inclination from rotation curve shape here. That we don’t understand why this works has never stopped astronomers before.

Systematic errors in inclination happen all the time. Big surveys don’t have time to image deeply – they have too much sky area to cover – and if there is follow-up about the gas content, it inevitably comes in the form of a single dish HI measurement. This is fine; it is what we can do en masse. But an unresolved single dish measurement provides no information about the inclination, only a pre-inclination line-width (which itself is a crude proxy for the flat rotation speed). The inclination we have to take from the optical image, which would key on the easily detected, high surface brightness central region of the image. That’s the part that is most likely to show a bar-like distortion, so one can expect lots of systematic errors in the inclinations determined in this way. I provided a long yet still incomplete discussion of these issues in McGaugh (2012). This is both technical and intensely boring, so not even the pros read it.

This brings us to the case of AGC 114905, which is part of a sample of ultradiffuse galaxies discussed previously by some of the same authors. On that occasion, I kept to the code, and refrained from discussion. But for context, here are those data on a recent Baryonic Tully-Fisher plot. Spoiler alert: that post was about a different sample of galaxies that seemed to be off the relation but weren’t.

Baryonic Tully-Fisher relation showing the ultradiffuse galaxies discussed by Mancera Piña et al. (2019) as gray circles. These are all outliers from the relation; AGC 114905 is highlighted in orange. Placing much meaning in the outliers is a classic case of missing the forest for the trees. The outliers are trees. The Tully-Fisher relation is the forest.

On the face of it, these ultradiffuse galaxies (UDGs) are all very serious outliers. This is weird – they’re not some scatter off to one side, they’re just way off on their own island, with no apparent connection to the rest of established reality. By calling them a new name, UDG, it makes it sound plausible that these are some entirely novel population of galaxies that behave in a new way. But they’re not. They are exactly the same kinds of galaxies I’ve been talking about. They’re all blue, gas rich, low surface brightness, fairly isolated galaxies – all words that I’ve frequently used to describe my thesis sample. These UDGs are all a few billion solar mass is baryonic mass, very similar to F577-V1 above. You could give F577-V1 a different name, slip into the sample, and nobody would notice that it wasn’t like one of the others.

The one slight difference is implied by the name: UDGs are a little lower in surface brightness. Indeed, once filter transformations are taken into account, the definition of ultradiffuse is equal to what I arbitrarily called very low surface brightness in 1996. Most of my old LSB sample galaxies have central stellar surface brightnesses at or a bit above 10 solar masses per square parsec while the UDGs here are a bit under this threshold. For comparison, in typical high surface brightness galaxies this quantity is many hundreds, often around a thousand. Nothing magic happens at the threshold of 10 solar masses per square parsec, so this line of definition between LSB and UDG is an observational distinction without a physical difference. So what are the odds of a different result for the same kind of galaxies?

Indeed, what really matters is the baryonic surface density, not just the stellar surface brightness. A galaxy made purely of gas but no stars would have zero optical surface brightness. I don’t know of any examples of that extreme, but we came close to it with the gas rich sample of Trachternach et al. (2009) when we tried this exact same exercise a decade ago. Despite selecting that sample to maximize the chance of deviations from the Baryonic Tully-Fisher relation, we found none – at least none that were credible: there were deviant cases, but their data were terrible. There were no deviants among the better data. This sample is comparable or even extreme than the UDGs in terms of baryonic surface density, so the UDGs can’t be exception because they’re a genuinely new population, whatever name we call them by.

The key thing is the credibility of the data, so let’s consider the data for AGC 114905. The kinematics are pretty well ordered; the velocity field is well observed for this kind of beast. It ought to be; they invested over 40 hours of JVLA time into this one galaxy. That’s more than went into my entire LSB thesis sample. The authors are all capable, competent people. I don’t think they’ve done anything wrong, per se. But they do seem to have climbed aboard the bandwagon of dark matter-free UDGs, and have talked themselves into believing smaller error bars on the inclination than I am persuaded is warranted.

Here is the picture of AGC 114905 from Mancera Piña et al. (2021):

AGC 114905 in stars (left) and gas (right). The contours of the gas distribution are shown on top of the stars in white. Figure 1 from Mancera Piña et al. (2021).

This messy morphology is typical of very low surface brightness galaxies – hence their frequent classification as Irregular galaxies. Though messier, it shares some morphological traits with the LSB galaxies shown above. The central light distribution is elongated with a major axis that is not aligned with that of the gas. The gas is raggedy as all get out. The contours are somewhat boxy; this is a hint that something hinky is going on beyond circular motion in a tilted axisymmetric disk.

The authors do the right thing and worry about the inclination, checking to see what it would take to be consistent with either LCDM or MOND, which is about i=11o in stead of the 30o indicated by the shape of the outer isophote. They even build a model to check the plausibility of the smaller inclination:

Contours of models of disks with different inclinations (lines, as labeled) compared to the outer contour of the gas distribution of AGC 114905. Figure 7 from Mancera Piña et al. (2021).

Clearly the black line (i=30o) is a better fit to the shape of the gas distribution than the blue dashed line (i=11o). Consequently, they “find it unlikely that we are severely overestimating the inclination of our UDG, although this remains the largest source of uncertainty in our analysis.” I certainly agree with the latter phrase, but not the former. I think it is quite likely that they are overestimating the inclination. I wouldn’t even call it a severe overestimation; more like par for the course with this kind of object.

As I have emphasized above and elsewhere, there are many things that can go wrong in this sort of analysis. But if I were to try to put my finger on the most important thing, here it would be the inclination. The modeling exercise is good, but it assumes “razor-thin axisymmetric discs.” That’s a reasonable thing to do when building such a model, but we have to bear in mind that real disks are neither. The thickness of the disk probably doesn’t matter too much for a nearly face-on case like this, but the assumption of axisymmetry is extraordinarily dubious for an Irregular galaxy. That’s how they got the name.

It is hard to build models that are not axisymmetric. Once you drop this simplifying assumption, where do you even start? So I don’t fault them for stopping at this juncture, but I can also imagine doing as de Blok suggested, using MOND to set the inclination. Then one could build models with asymmetric features by trial and error until a match is obtained. Would we know that such a model would be a better representation of reality? No. Could we exclude such a model? Also no. So the bottom line is that I am not convinced that the uncertainty in the inclination is anywhere near as small as the adopted ±3o.

That’s very deep in the devilish details. If one is worried about a particular result, one can back off and ask if it makes sense in the context of what we already know. I’ve illustrated this process previously. First, check the empirical facts. Every other galaxy in the universe with credible data falls on the Baryonic Tully-Fisher relation, including very similar galaxies that go by a slightly different name. Hmm, strike one. Second, check what we expect from theory. I’m not a fan of theory-informed data interpretation, but we know that LCDM, unlike SCDM before it, at least gets the amplitude of the rotation speed in the right ballpark (Vflat ~ V200). Except here. Strike two. As much as we might favor LCDM as the standard cosmology, it has now been extraordinarily well established that MOND has considerable success in not just explaining but predicting these kind of data, with literally hundreds of examples. One hundred was the threshold Vera Rubin obtained to refute excuses made to explain away the first few flat rotation curves. We’ve crossed that threshold: MOND phenomenology is as well established now as flat rotation curves were at the inception of the dark matter paradigm. So while I’m open to alternative explanations for the MOND phenomenology, seeing that a few trees stand out from the forest is never going to be as important as the forest itself.

The Baryonic Tully-Fisher relation exists empirically; we have to explain it in any theory. Either we explain it, or we don’t. We can’t have it both ways, just conveniently throwing away our explanation to accommodate any discrepant observation that comes along. That’s what we’d have to do here: if we can explain the relation, we can’t very well explain the outliers. If we explain the outliers, it trashes our explanation for the relation. If some galaxies are genuine exceptions, then there are probably exceptional reasons for them to be exceptions, like a departure from equilibrium. That can happen in any theory, rendering such a test moot: a basic tenet of objectivity is that we don’t get to blame a missed prediction of LCDM on departures from equilibrium without considering the same possibility for MOND.

This brings us to a physical effect that people should be aware of. We touched on the bar stability above, and how a galaxy might look oval even when seen face on. This happens fairly naturally in MOND simulations of isolated disk galaxies. They form bars and spirals and their outer parts wobble about. See, for example, this simulation by Nils Wittenburg. This particular example is a relatively massive galaxy; the lopsidedness reminds me of M101 (Watkins et al. 2017). Lower mass galaxies deeper in the MOND regime are likely even more wobbly. This happens because disks are only marginally stable in MOND, not the over-stabilized entities that have to be hammered to show a response as in our early simulation of UGC 128 above. The point is that there is good reason to expect even isolated face-on dwarf Irregulars to look, well, irregular, leading to exactly the issues with inclination determinations discussed above. Rather than being a contradiction to MOND, AGC 114905 may illustrate one of its inevitable consequences.

I don’t like to bicker at this level of detail, but it makes a profound difference to the interpretation. I do think we should be skeptical of results that contradict well established observational reality – especially when over-hyped. God knows I was skeptical of our own results, which initially surprised the bejeepers out of me, but have been repeatedly corroborated by subsequent observations.

I guess I’m old now, so I wonder how I come across to younger practitioners; perhaps as some scary undead monster. But mates, these claims about UDGs deviating from established scaling relations are off the edge of the map.

8 thoughts on “The curious case of AGC 114905: an isolated galaxy devoid of dark matter?

  1. Very interesting, of course.
    Perhaps the most interesting thing is how much detail you go into, despite your claim of feeling it is a waist of time. To me it seems you might be more passionate about this topic (claims of no DM in LSBs) than you might be willing to admit?
    Enjoyed greatly, and HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. If this galaxy is mostly gas, is it possible it agrees with the TFR, as opposed to the BTFR? It would be interesting to see the estimated figures for this galaxy. i.e. Stellar Mass, gas mass, missing mass and size.

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  3. It is gas dominated in the outer parts of the galaxy. The original paper has a chart comparing stars v. gas at different radii. The original paper (quite likely wrongly) infers an amount of missing mass consistent with zero. The chart in this blog spot shows its size and estimated total mass (the one with the orange outlier point).

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  4. Thanks that’s insightful. I do wonder, how flattened are UDGs/very LSBs in general? Perhaps naively, I wouldn’t expect “irregular” galaxies to be very much flattened at all. Even if they can be reasonably approximated as such for the ease of calculation.

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