Big galaxies at high redshift!
That’s my prediction, anyway. A little context first.
New Year, New Telescope
First, JWST finally launched. This has been a long-delayed NASA mission; the launch had been put off so many times it felt like a living example of Zeno’s paradox: ever closer but never quite there. A successful launch is always a relief – rockets do sometimes blow up on lift off – but there is still sweating to be done: it has one of the most complex deployments of any space mission. This is still a work in progress, but to start the new year, I thought it would be nice to look forward to what we hope to see.
JWST is a major space telescope optimized for observing in the near and mid-infrared. This enables observation of redshifted light from the earliest galaxies. This should enable us to see them as they would appear to our eyes had we been around at the time. And that time is long, long ago, in galaxies very far away: in principle, we should be able to see the first galaxies in their infancy, 13+ billion years ago. So what should we expect to see?
Early galaxies in LCDM
A theory is only as good as its prior. In LCDM, structure forms hierarchically: small objects emerge first, then merge into larger ones. It takes time to build up large galaxies like the Milky Way; the common estimate early on was that it would take at least a billion years to assemble an L* galaxy, and it could easily take longer. Ach, terminology: an L* galaxy is the characteristic luminosity of the Schechter function we commonly use to describe the number density of galaxies of various sizes. L* galaxies like the Milky Way are common, but the number of brighter galaxies falls precipitously. Bigger galaxies exist, but they are rare above this characteristic brightness, so L* is shorthand for a galaxy of typical brightness.
We expect galaxies to start small and slowly build up in size. This is a very basic prediction of LCDM. The hierarchical growth of dark matter halos is fundamental, and relatively easy to calculate. How this translates to the visible parts of galaxies is more fraught, depending on the details of baryonic infall, star formation, and the many kinds of feedback. [While I am a frequent critic of model feedback schemes implemented in hydrodynamic simulations on galactic scales, there is no doubt that feedback happens on the much smaller scales of individual stars and their nurseries. These are two very different things for which we confusingly use the same word since the former is the aspirational result of the latter.] That said, one only expects to assemble mass so fast, so the natural expectation is to see small galaxies first, with larger galaxies emerging slowly as their host dark matter halos merge together.
Here is an example of a model formation history that results in the brightest galaxy in a cluster (from De Lucia & Blaizot 2007). Little things merge to form bigger things (hence “hierarchical”). This happens a lot, and it isn’t really clear when you would say the main galaxy had formed. The final product (at lookback time zero, at redshift z=0) is a big galaxy composed of old stars – fairly typically for a giant elliptical. But the most massive progenitor is still rather small 8 billion years ago, over 4 billion years after the Big Bang. The final product doesn’t really emerge until the last major merger around 4 billion years ago. This is just one example in one model, and there are many different models, so your mileage will vary. But you get the idea: it takes a long time and a lot of mergers to assemble a big galaxy.
It is important to note that in a hierarchical model, the age of a galaxy is not the same as the age of the stars that make up the galaxy. According to De Lucia & Blaizot, the stars of the brightest cluster galaxies
“are formed very early (50 per cent at z~5, 80 per cent at z~3)”
but do so
“in many small galaxies”
– i.e., the little progenitor circles in the plot above. The brightest cluster galaxies in their model build up rather slowly, such that
“half their final mass is typically locked-up in a single galaxy after z~0.5.”De Lucia & Blaizot (2007)
So all the star formation happens early in the little things, but the final big thing emerges later – a lot later, only reaching half its current size when the universe is about 8 Gyr old. (That’s roughly when the solar system formed: we are late-comers to this party.) Given this prediction, one can imagine that JWST should see lots of small galaxies at high redshift, their early star formation popping off like firecrackers, but it shouldn’t see any big galaxies early on – not really at z > 3 and certainly not at z > 5.
Big galaxies in the data at early times?
While JWST is eagerly awaited, people have not been idle about looking into this. There have been many deep surveys made with the Hubble Space Telescope, augmented by the infrared capable (and now sadly defunct) Spitzer Space Telescope. These have already spied a number of big galaxies at surprisingly high redshift. So surprising that Steinhardt et al. (2016) dubbed it “The Impossibly Early Galaxy Problem.” This is their key plot:
There are lots of caveats to this kind of work. Constructing the galaxy luminosity function is a challenging task at any redshift; getting it right at high redshift especially so. While what counts as “high” varies, I’d say everything on the above plot counts. Steinhardt et al. (2016) worry about these details at considerable length but don’t find any plausible way out.
Around the same time, one of our graduate students, Jay Franck, was looking into similar issues. One of the things he found was that not only were there big galaxies in place early on, but they were also in clusters (or at least protoclusters) early and often. That is to say, not only are the galaxies too big too soon, so are the clusters in which they reside.
Dr. Franck made his own comparison of data to models, using the Millennium simulation to devise an apples-to-apples comparison:
The result is that the data look more like big galaxies formed early already as big galaxies. The solid lines are “passive evolution” models in which all the stars form in a short period starting at z=10. This starting point is an arbitrary choice, but there is little cosmic time between z = 10 and 20 – just a few hundred million years, barely one spin around the Milky Way. This is a short time in stellar evolution, so is practically the same as starting right at the beginning of time. As Jay put it,
“High redshift cluster galaxies appear to be consistent with an old stellar population… they do not appear to be rapidly assembling stellar mass at these epochs.”Franck 2017
We see old stars, but we don’t see the predicted assembly of galaxies via mergers, at least not at the expected time. Rather, it looks like some galaxies were already big very early on.
As someone who has worked mostly on well resolved, relatively nearby galaxies, all this makes me queasy. Jay, and many others, have worked desperately hard to squeeze knowledge from the faint smudges detected by first generation space telescopes. JWST should bring these into much better focus.
Early galaxies in MOND
To go back to the first line of this post, big galaxies at high redshift did not come as a surprise to me. It is what we expect in MOND.
Structure formation is generally considered a great success of LCDM. It is straightforward and robust to calculate on large scales in linear perturbation theory. Individual galaxies, on the other hand, are highly non-linear objects, making them hard to beasts to tame in a model. In MOND, it is the other way around – predicting the behavior of individual galaxies is straightforward – only the observed distribution of mass matters, not all the details of how it came to be that way – but what happens as structure forms in the early universe is highly non-linear.
The non-linearity of MOND makes it hard to work with computationally. It is also crucial to how structure forms. I provide here an outline of how I expect structure formation to proceed in MOND. This page is now old, even ancient in internet time, as the golden age for this work was 15 – 20 years ago, when all the essential predictions were made and I was naive enough to think cosmologists were amenable to reason. Since the horizon of scientific memory is shorter than that, I felt it necessary to review in 2015. That is now itself over the horizon, so with the launch of JWST, it seems appropriate to remind the community yet again that these predictions exist.
This 1998 paper by Bob Sanders is a foundational paper in this field (see also Sanders 2001 and the other references given on the structure formation page). He says, right in the abstract,
“Objects of galaxy mass are the first virialized objects to form (by z = 10), and larger structure develops rapidly.”Sanders (1998)
This was a remarkable prediction to make in 1998. Galaxies, much less larger structures, were supposed to take much longer to form. It takes time to go from the small initial perturbations that we see in the CMB at z=1000 to large objects like galaxies. Indeed, the it takes at least a few hundred million years simply in free fall time to assemble a galaxy’s worth of mass, a hard limit. Here Sanders was saying that an L* galaxy might assemble as early as half a billion years after the Big Bang.
So how can this happen? Without dark matter to lend a helping hand, structure formation in the very early universe is inhibited by the radiation field. This inhibition is removed around z ~ 200; exactly when being very sensitive to the baryon density. At this point, the baryon perturbations suddenly find themselves deep in the MOND regime, and behave as if there is a huge amount of dark matter. Structure proceeds hierarchically, as it must, but on a highly compressed timescale. To distinguish it from LCDM hierarchical galaxy formation, let’s call it prompt structure formation. In prompt structure formation, we expect
- Early reionization (z ~ 20)
- Some L* galaxies by z ~ 10
- Early emergence of the cosmic web
- Massive clusters already at z > 2
- Large, empty voids
- Large peculiar velocities
- A very large homogeneity scale, maybe fractal over 100s of Mpc
There are already indications of all of these things, nearly all of which were predicted in advance of the relevant observations. I could elaborate, but that is beyond the scope of this post. People should read the references* if they’re keen.
*Reading the science papers is mandatory for the pros, who often seem fond of making straw man arguments about what they imagine MOND might do without bothering to check. I once referred some self-styled experts in structure formation to Sanders’s work. They promptly replied “That would mean structures of 1018 M☉!” when what he said was
“The largest objects being virialized now would be clusters of galaxies with masses in excess of 1014 M☉. Superclusters would only now be reaching maximum expansion.”Sanders (1998)
The exact numbers are very sensitive to cosmological parameters, as Sanders discussed, but I have no idea where the “experts” got 1018, other than just making stuff up. More importantly, Sanders’s statement clearly presaged the observation of very massive clusters at surprisingly high redshift and the discovery of the Laniakea Supercluster.
These are just the early predictions of prompt structure formation, made in the same spirit that enabled me to predict the second peak of the microwave background and the absorption signal observed by EDGES at cosmic dawn. Since that time, at least two additional schools of thought as to how MOND might impact cosmology have emerged. One of them is the sterile neutrino MOND cosmology suggested by Angus and being actively pursued by the Bonn-Prague research group. Very recently, there is of course the new relativistic theory of Skordis & Złośnik which fits the cosmologists’ holy grail of the power spectrum in both the CMB at z = 1090 and galaxies at z = 0. There should be an active exchange and debate between these approaches, with perhaps new ones emerging.
Instead, we lack critical mass. Most of the community remains entirely obsessed with pursuing the vain chimera of invisible mass. I fear that this will eventually prove to be one of the greatest wastes of brainpower (some of it my own) in the history of science. I can only hope I’m wrong, as many brilliant people seem likely to waste their career running garbage in-garbage out computer simulations or at the bottom of a mine shaft failing to detect what isn’t there.
A beautiful mess
JWST can’t answer all of these questions, but it will help enormously with galaxy formation, which is bound to be messy. It’s not like L* galaxies are going to spring fully formed from the void like Athena from the forehead of Zeus. The early universe must be a chaotic place, with clumps of gas condensing to form the first stars that irradiate the surrounding intergalactic gas with UV photons before detonating as the first supernovae, and the clumps of stars merging to form giant elliptical galaxies while elsewhere gas manages to pool and settle into the large disks of spiral galaxies. When all this happens, how it happens, and how big galaxies get how fast are all to be determined – but now accessible to direct observation thanks to JWST.
It’s going to be a confusing, beautiful mess, in the best possible way – one that promises to test and challenge our predictions and preconceptions about structure formation in the early universe.