A script for every observational test

A script for every observational test

Science progresses through hypothesis testing. The primary mechanism for distinguishing between hypotheses is predictive power. The hypothesis that can predict new phenomena is “better.” This is especially true for surprising, a priori predictions: it matters more when the new phenomena was not expected in the context of an existing paradigm.

I’ve seen this happen many times now. MOND has had many predictive successes. As a theory, it has been exposed to potential falsification, and passed many tests. These have often been in the form of phenomena that had not been anticipated in any other way, and were initially received as strange to the point of seeming impossible. It is exactly the situation envisioned in Putnam’s “no miracles” argument: it is unlikely to the point of absurdity that a wholly false theory should succeed in making so many predictions of such diversity and precision.

MOND has many doubters, which I can understand. What I don’t get is the ignorance I so often encounter among them. To me, the statement that MOND has had many unexpected predictions come true is a simple statement of experiential fact. I suspect it will be received by some as a falsehood. It shouldn’t be, so if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you should try reading the relevant literature. What papers about MOND have you actually read?

Ignorance is not a strong basis for making scientific judgements. Before I criticize something, I make sure I know what I’m talking about. That’s rarely true of the complaints I hear against MOND. There are legitimate ones, to be sure, but for the most part I hear assertions like

  • MOND is guaranteed to fit rotation curves.
  • It fits rotation curves but does nothing else.
  • It is just a fitting tool with no predictive power.

These are myths, plain and simple. They are easily debunked, and were long ago. Yet I hear them repeated often by people who think they know better, one as recently as last week. Serious people who expect to be taken seriously as scientists, and yet they repeat known falsehoods as if they were established fact. Is there a recycling bin of debunked myths that gets passed around? I guess it is easy to believe a baseless rumor when it conforms to your confirmation bias: no need for fact-checking!

Aside from straight-up reality denial, another approach is to claim that dark matter predicts exactly the same thing, whatever it is. I’ve seen this happen so often, I know how the script always goes:

• We make a new observation X that is surprising.
• We test the hypothesis, and report the result: “Gee, MOND predicted this strange effect, and we see evidence of it in the data.”
• Inevitable Question: What does LCDM predict?
• Answer: Not that.
• Q: But what does it predict?
• A: It doesn’t really make a clear prediction on this subject, so we have to build some kind of model to even begin to address this question. In the most obvious models one can construct, it predicts Y. Y is not the same as X.
• Q: What about more complicated models?
• A: One can construct more complicated models, but they are not unique. They don’t make a prediction so much as provide a menu of options from which we may select the results that suit us. The obvious danger is that it becomes possible to do anything, and we have nothing more than an epicycle theory of infinite possibilities. If we restrict ourselves to considering the details of serious models that have only been partially fine-tuned over the course of the development of the field, then there are still a lot of possibilities. Some of them come closer to reality than others but still don’t really do the right thing for the following reasons…[here follows 25 pages of minutia in the ApJ considering every up/down left/right stand on your head and squint possibility that still winds up looking more like Y than like X.] You certainly couldn’t predict X this way, as MOND did a priori.
• Q: That’s too long to read. Dr. Z says it works, so he must be right since we already know that LCDM is correct.

The thing is, Dr. Z did not predict X ahead of time. MOND did. Maybe Dr. Z’s explanation in terms of dark matter makes sense. Often it does not, but even if it does, so what? Why should I be more impressed with a theory that only explains things after they’re observed when another predicted them a priori?

There are lots of Dr. Z’s. No matter how carefully one goes through the minutia, no matter how clearly one demonstrates that X cannot work in a purely conventional CDM context, there is always someone who says it does. That’s what people want to hear, so that’s what they choose to believe. Way easier that way. Or, as it has been noted before

Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everybody gets busy on the proof.

J. K. Galbraith (1965)

The curious case of AGC 114905: an isolated galaxy devoid of dark matter?

The curious case of AGC 114905: an isolated galaxy devoid of dark matter?

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.

What JWST will see

What JWST will see

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.

Brightest cluster galaxy merger tree. Time progresses upwards from early in the universe at bottom to the present day at top. Every line is a small galaxy that merges to ultimately form the larger galaxy. Symbols are color-coded by B−V color (red meaning old stars, blue young) and their area scales with the stellar mass (bigger circles being bigger galaxies. From De Lucia & Blaizot 2007).

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:

The observed (points) and predicted (lines) luminosity functions of galaxies at various redshifts (colors). If all were well, the points would follow the lines of the same color. Instead, galaxies appear to be brighter than expected, already big at the highest redshifts probed. From Steinhardt et al. (2016).

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 apparent magnitude m* at 4.5 microns of L* galaxies in clusters as a function of redshift. Circles are data; squares represent the Millennium simulation. These diverge at z > 2: galaxies are brighter (smaller m*) than predicted (Fig. 5.5 from Franck 2017).

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 he discussed, but I have no idea where they 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.

A few of Zwicky’s rants

A few of Zwicky’s rants

An important issue in science is what’s right and what’s wrong. Another is who gets credit for what. The former issue is scientific while the second is social. It matters little to the progress of science who discovers what. It matters a lot to the people who do it. We like to get credit where due.

Nowadays, Fritz Zwicky is often credited with the discovery of dark matter for his work on clusters of galaxies in the 1930s. Indeed, in his somewhat retrospective 1971 Catalogue of Selected Compact Galaxies and of Post-Eruptive Galaxies (CSCGPEG), he claims credit for discovering clusters themselves, which were

discovered by me but contested by masses of unbelievers, [who asserted] that there exist no bona fide clusters of stable or stationary clusters of galaxies.


Were Zwicky alive today, a case could be made that he deserves the Nobel Prize in physics for the discovery of dark matter. However, Zwicky was not the first or only person to infer the existence of dark matter early on. Jan Oort was concerned that dark mass was necessary to explain the accelerations of stars perpendicular to the plane of the Milky Way as early as 1932. Where Zwicky’s discrepancy was huge, over a factor of 100, Oort’s was a more modest factor of 2. Oort was taken seriously at the time while Zwicky was largely ignored.

The reasons for this difference in response are many and varied. I wasn’t around at the time, so I will refrain from speculating too much. But in many ways, this divide reflects the difference in cultures between physics and astronomy. Oort was thoroughly empirical and immaculately detailed in his observational work and conservative in its interpretation, deeply impressing his fellow astronomers. Zwicky was an outsider and self-described lone wolf, and may have come across as a wild-eyed crackpot. That he had good reason for that didn’t alter the perception. That he is now posthumously recognized as having been basically correct does nothing to aid him personally, only our memory of him.

Nowadays, nearly every physicist I hear talk about the subject credits Zwicky with the discovery of dark matter. When I mention Oort, most have never heard of him, and they rarely seem prepared to share the credit. This is how history gets rewritten, by oversimplification and omission: Oort goes unmentioned in the education of physicists, the omission gets promulgated by those who never heard of him, then it becomes fact since an omission so glaring cannot possibly be correct. I’m doing that myself here by omitting mention of Opik and perhaps others I haven’t heard of myself.

Zwicky got that treatment in real time, leading to some of the best published rants in all of science. I’ll let him speak for himself, quoting from the CSCGPEG. One of his great resentments was his exclusion from premiere observational facilities:

I myself was allowed the use of the 100-inch telescope only in 1948, after I was fifty years of age, and of the 200-inch telescope on Palomar Mountain only after I was 54 years old, although I had built and successfully operated the 18-inch Schmidt telescope in 1936, and had been professor of physics and of astrophysics at the California Institute of Technology since 1927 and 1942 respectively. 

Zwicky, in the introduction to the CSCGPEG

For reference, I have observed many hundreds of nights at various observatories. Only a handful of those nights have been in my fifties. Observing is mostly a young person’s occupation.

I do not know why Zwicky was excluded. Perhaps there is a book on the subject; there should be. Maybe it was personal, as he clearly suspects. Applying for telescope time can be highly competitive, even within one’s own institution, which hardly matters if it crossed departmental lines. Perhaps his proposals lacked grounding in the expectations of the field, or some intangible quality that made them less persuasive than those of his colleagues. Maybe he simply didn’t share their scientific language, a perpetual problem I see at the interface between physics and astronomy. Perhaps all these things contributed.

More amusing if inappropriate are his ad hominem attacks on individuals:

a shining example of a most deluded individual we need only quote the high pope of American Astronomy, one Henry Norris Russell…


or his more generalized condemnation of the entire field:

Today’s sycophants and plain thieves seem to be free, in American Astronomy in particular, to appropriate discoveries and inventions made by lone wolves and non-conformists, for whom there is never any appeal to the hierarchies and for whom even the public Press is closed, because of censoring committees within the scientific institutions.


or indeed, of human nature:

we note that again and again scientists and technical specialists arrive at stagnation points where they think they know it all.

Zwicky, CSCGPEG, emphasis his.

He’s not wrong.

I have heard Zwicky described as a “spherical bastard”: a bastard viewed from any angle. You can see why from these quotes. But you can also see why he might have felt this way. The CSCGPEG was published about 35 years after his pioneering work on clusters of galaxies. That’s a career-lifetime lacking recognition for what would now be consider Nobel prize worthy work. Dark matter would come to prominence in the following decade, by which time he was dead.

I have also heard that “spherical bastard” was a phrase invented by Zwicky to apply to others. I don’t know who was the bigger bastard, and I am reluctant to attribute his lack of popularity in his own day to his personality. The testimony I am aware of is mostly from those who disagreed with him, and may themselves have been spherical bastards. Indeed, I strongly suspect those who sing his praises most loudly now would have been among his greatest detractors had they been contemporaries.

I know from my own experience that people are lousy at distinguishing between a scientific hypothesis that they don’t like and the person who advocates it. Often they are willing and eager to attribute a difference in scientific judgement to a failure of character: “He disagrees with me, therefore he is a bastard.” Trash talk by mediocre wannabes is common, and slander works wonders to run down a reputation. I imagine Zwicky was a victim of this human failing.

Of course, the correctness of a scientific hypothesis has nothing to do with how likeable its proponents might be. Indeed, a true scientist has an obligation to speak the facts, even if they are unpopular, as Zwicky reminded us with a quote of his own in the preface to the CSCGPEG:

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Super spirals on the Tully-Fisher relation

Super spirals on the Tully-Fisher relation

A surprising and ultimately career-altering result that I encountered while in my first postdoc was that low surface brightness galaxies fell precisely on the Tully-Fisher relation. This surprising result led me to test the limits of the relation in every conceivable way. Are there galaxies that fall off it? How far is it applicable? Often, that has meant pushing the boundaries of known galaxies to ever lower surface brightness, higher gas fraction, and lower mass where galaxies are hard to find because of unavoidable selection biases in galaxy surveys: dim galaxies are hard to see.

I made a summary plot in 2017 to illustrate what we had learned to that point. There is a clear break in the stellar mass Tully-Fisher relation (left panel) that results from neglecting the mass of interstellar gas that becomes increasingly important in lower mass galaxies. The break goes away when you add in the gas mass (right panel). The relation between baryonic mass and rotation speed is continuous down to Leo P, a tiny galaxy just outside the Local Group comparable in mass to a globular cluster and the current record holder for the slowest known rotating galaxy at a mere 15 km/s.

The stellar mass (left) and baryonic (right) Tully-Fisher relations constructed in 2017 from SPARC data and gas rich galaxies. Dark blue points are star dominated galaxies; light blue points are galaxies with more mass in gas than in stars. The data are restricted to galaxies with distance measurements accurate to 20% or better; see McGaugh et al. (2019) for a discussion of the effects of different quality criteria. The line has a slope of 4 and is identical in both panels for comparison.

At the high mass end, galaxies aren’t hard to see, but they do become progressively rare: there is an exponential cut off in the intrinsic numbers of galaxies at the high mass end. So it is interesting to see how far up in mass we can go. Ogle et al. set out to do that, looking over a huge volume to identify a number of very massive galaxies, including what they dubbed “super spirals.” These extend the Tully-Fisher relation to higher masses.

The Tully-Fisher relation extended to very massive “super” spirals (blue points) by Ogle et al. (2019).

Most of the super spirals lie on the top end of the Tully-Fisher relation. However, a half dozen of the most massive cases fall off to the right. Could this be a break in the relation? So it was claimed at the time, but looking at the data, I wasn’t convinced. It looked to me like they were not always getting out to the flat part of the rotation curve, instead measuring the maximum rotation speed.

Bright galaxies tend to have rapidly rising rotation curves that peak early then fall before flattening out. For very bright galaxies – and super spirals are by definition the brightest spirals – the amplitude of the decline can be substantial, several tens of km/s. So if one measures the maximum speed instead of the flat portion of the curve, points will fall to the right of the relation. I decided not to lose any sleep over it, and wait for better data.

Better data have now been provided by Di Teodoro et al. Here is an example from their paper. The morphology of the rotation curve is typical of what we see in massive spiral galaxies. The maximum rotation speed exceeds 300 km/s, but falls to 275 km/s where it flattens out.

A super spiral (left) and its rotation curve (right) from Di Teodoro et al.

Adding the updated data to the plot, we see that the super spirals now fall on the Tully-Fisher relation, with no hint of a break. There are a couple of outliers, but those are trees. The relation is the forest.

The super spiral (red points) stellar mass (left) and baryonic (right) Tully-Fisher relations as updated by Di Teodoro et al. (2021).

That’s a good plot, but it stops at 108 solar masses, so I couldn’t resist adding the super spirals to my plot from 2017. I’ve also included the dwarfs I discussed in the last post. Together, we see that the baryonic Tully-Fisher relation is continuous over six decades in mass – a factor of million from the smallest to the largest galaxies.

The plot from above updated to include the super spirals (red points) at high mass and Local Group dwarfs (gray squares) at low mass. The SPARC data (blue points) have also been updated with new stellar population mass-to-light ratio estimates that make their bulge components a bit more massive, and with scaling relations for metallicity and molecular gas. The super spirals have been treated in the same way, and adjusted to a matching distance scale (H0 = 73 km/s/Mpc). There is some overlap between the super spirals and the most massive galaxies in SPARC; here the data are in excellent agreement. The super spirals extend to higher mass by a factor of two.

The strength of this correlation continues to amaze me. This never happens in extragalactic astronomy, where correlations are typically weak and have lots of intrinsic scatter. The opposite is true here. This must be telling us something.

The obvious thing that this is telling us is MOND. The initial report that super spirals fell off of the Tully-Fisher relation was widely hailed as a disproof of MOND. I’ve seen this movie many times, so I am not surprised that the answer changed in this fashion. It happens over and over again. Even less surprising is that there is no retraction, no self-examination of whether maybe we jumped to the wrong conclusion.

I get it. I couldn’t believe it myself, to start. I struggled for many years to explain the data conventionally in terms of dark matter. Worked my ass off trying to save the paradigm. Try as I might, nothing worked. Since then, many people have claimed to explain what I could not, but so far all I have seen are variations on models that I had already rejected as obviously unworkable. They either make unsubstantiated assumptions, building a tautology, or simply claim more than they demonstrate. As long as you say what people want to hear, you will be held to a very low standard. If you say what they don’t want to hear, what they are conditioned not to believe, then no standard of proof is high enough.

MOND was the only theory to predict the observed behavior a priori. There are no free parameters in the plots above. We measure the mass and the rotation speed. The data fall on the predicted line. Dark matter models did not predict this, and can at best hope to provide a convoluted, retroactive explanation. Why should I be impressed by that?

Leveling the Playing Field of Dwarf Galaxy Kinematics

Leveling the Playing Field of Dwarf Galaxy Kinematics

We have a new paper on the arXiv. This is a straightforward empiricist’s paper that provides a reality check on the calibration of the Baryonic Tully-Fisher relation (BTFR) and the distance scale using well-known Local Group galaxies. It also connects observable velocity measures in rotating and pressure supported dwarf galaxies: the flat rotation speed of disks is basically twice the line-of-sight velocity dispersion of dwarf spheroidals.

First, the reality check. Previously we calibrated the BTFR using galaxies with distances measured by reliable methods like Cepheids and the Tip of the Red Giant Branch (TRGB) method. Application of this calibration obtains the Hubble constant H0 = 75.1 +/- 2.3 km/s/Mpc, which is consistent with other local measurements but in tension with the value obtained from fitting the Planck CMB data. All of the calibrator galaxies are nearby (most are within 10 Mpc, which is close by extragalactic standards), but none of them are in the Local Group (galaxies within ~1 Mpc like Andromeda and M33). The distances to Local Group galaxies are pretty well known at this point, so if we got the BTFR calibration right, they had better fall right on it.

They do. From high to low mass, the circles in the plot below are Andromeda, the Milky Way, M33, the LMC, SMC, and NGC 6822. All fall on the externally calibrated BTFR, which extrapolates well to still lower mass dwarf galaxies like WLM, DDO 210, and DDO 216 (and even Leo P, the smallest rotating galaxy known).

The BTFR for Local Group galaxies. Rotationally supported galaxies with measured flat rotation velocities (circles) are in good agreement with the BTFR calibrated independently with fifty galaxies external to the Local Group (solid line; the dashed line is the extrapolation below the lowest mass calibrator). Pressure supported dwarfs (squares) are plotted with their observed velocity dispersions in lieu of a flat rotation speed. Filled squares are color coded by their proximity to M31 (red) or the Milky Way (orange) or neither (green). Open squares are dwarfs whose velocity dispersions may not be reliable tracers of their equilibrium gravitational potential (see McGaugh & Wolf).

The agreement of the BTFR with Local Group rotators is so good that it is tempting to say that there is no way to reconcile this with a low Hubble constant of 67 km/s/kpc. Doing so would require all of these galaxies to be more distant by the factor 75/67 = 1.11. That doesn’t sound too bad, but applying it means that Andromeda would have to be 875 kpc distant rather than the 785 ± 25 adopted by the source of our M31 data, Chemin et al. There is a long history of distance measurements to M31 so many opinions can be found, but it isn’t just M31 – all of the Local Group galaxy distances would have to be off by this factor. This seems unlikely to the point of absurdity, but as colleague and collaborator Jim Schombert reminds me, we’ve seen such things before with the distance scale.

So that’s the reality check: the BTFR works as it should in the Local Group – at least for the rotating galaxies (circles in the plot above). What about the pressure supported galaxies (the squares)?

Galaxies come in two basic kinematic types: rotating disks or pressure supported ellipticals. Disks are generally thin, with most of the stars orbiting in the same direction in the same plane on nearly circular orbits. Ellipticals are quasi-spherical blobs of stars on rather eccentric orbits oriented all over the place. This is an oversimplification, of course; real galaxies have a mix of orbits, but usually most of the kinetic energy is invested in one or the other, rotation or random motions. We can measure the speeds of stars and gas in these configurations, which provides information about the kinetic energy and corresponding gravitational binding energy. That’s how we get at the gravitational potential and infer the need for dark matter – or at least, the existence of acceleration discrepancies.

The elliptical galaxy M105 (left) and the spiral galaxy NGC 628 (right). Typical orbits are illustrated by the colored lines: predominantly radial (highly eccentric in & out) orbits in the pressure supported elliptical; more nearly circular (low eccentricity, round & round) orbits in rotationally supported disks. (Galaxy images are based on photographic data obtained using the Oschin Schmidt Telescope on Palomar Mountain as part of the Palomar Observatory Sky Survey-II. Digital versions of the scanned photographic plates were obtained for reproduction from the Digitized Sky Survey.)

We would like to have full 6D phase space information for all stars – their location in 3D configuration space and their momentum in each direction. In practice, usually all we can measure is the Doppler line-of-sight speed. For rotating galaxies, we can [attempt to] correct the observed velocity for the inclination of the disk, and get an idea or the in-plane rotation speed. For ellipticals, we get the velocity dispersion along the line of sight in whatever orientation we happen to get. If the orbits are isotropic, then one direction of view is as good as any other. In general that need not be the case, but it is hard to constrain the anisotropy of orbits, so usually we assume isotropy and call it Close Enough for Astronomy.

For isotropic orbits, the velocity dispersion σ* is related to the circular velocity Vc of a test particle by Vc = √3 σ*. The square root of three appears because the kinetic energy of isotropic orbits is evenly divided among the three cardinal directions. These quantities depend in a straightforward way on the gravitational potential, which can be computed for the stuff we can see but not for that which we can’t. The stars tend to dominate the potential at small radii in bright galaxies. This is a complication we’ll ignore here by focusing on the outskirts of rotating galaxies where rotation curves are flat and dwarf spheroidals where stars never dominate. In both cases, we are in a limit where we can neglect the details of the stellar distribution: only the dark mass matters, or, in the case of MOND, only the total normal mass but not its detailed distribution (which does matter for the shape of a rotation curve, but not its flat amplitude).

Rather than worry about theory or the gory details of phase space, let’s just ask the data. How do we compare apples with apples? What is the factor βc that makes Vo = βc σ* an equality?

One notices that the data for pressure supported dwarfs nicely parallels that for rotating galaxies. We estimate βc by finding the shift that puts the dwarf spheroidals on the BTFR (on average). We only do this for the dwarfs that are not obviously affected by tidal effects whose velocity dispersions may not reflect the equilibrium gravitational potential. I have discussed this at great length in McGaugh & Wolf, so I refer the reader eager for more details there. Here I merely note that the exercise is meaningful only for those dwarfs that parallel the BTFR; it can’t apply to those that don’t regardless of the reason.

That caveat aside, this works quite well for βc = 2.

The BTFR plane with the outer velocity of dwarf spheroidals taken to be Vo = 2σ.

The numerically inclined reader will note that 2 > √3. One would expect the latter for isotropic orbits, which we implicitly average over by using the data for all these dwarfs together. So the likely explanation for the larger values of βc is that the outer velocities of rotation curves are measured at a larger radii than the velocity dispersions of dwarf spheroidals. The value of βc is accounts for the different effective radii of measurement as illustrated by the rotation curves below.

The rotation curve of the gas rich Local Group dIrr WLM (left, Iorio et al.) and the equivalent circular velocity curve of the pressure supported dSph Leo I (right). The filled point represents the luminosity weighted circular speed Vc = √3 σ* at the 3D half light radius where variation due to anisotropy is minimized (Wolf et al). The dotted lines illustrate how the uncertainty grows away from this point due to the compounding effects of anisotropy. The outer circular speed Vo is marked for both. Note that Vo > √3 σ* simply because of the shape of the circular velocity curve, which has not yet reached the flat plateau where the velocity dispersion is measured.

Once said, this seems obvious. The velocity dispersions of dwarf spheroidals are measured by observing the Doppler shifts of individual member stars. This measurement is necessarily made where the stars are. In contrast, the flat portions of rotation curves are traced by atomic gas at radii that typically extend beyond the edge of the optical disk. So we should expect a difference; βc = 2 quantifies it.

One small caveat is that in order to compare apples with apples, we have to adopt a mass-to-light ratio for the stars in dwarfs spheroidals in order to compare them with the combined mass of stars and gas in rotating galaxies. Indeed, the dwarf irregulars that overlap with the dwarf spheroidals in mass are made more of gas than stars, so there is always the risk of some systematic difference between the two mass scales. In the paper, we quantify the variation of βc with the choice of M*/L. If you’re interested in that level of detail, you should read the paper.

I should also note that MOND predicts βc = 2.12. Taken at face value, this implies that MOND prefers an average mass-to-light ratio slightly higher than what we assumed. This is well within the uncertainties, and we already know that MOND is the only theory capable of predicting the velocity dispersions of dwarf spheroidals in advance. We can always explain this after the fact with dark matter, which is what people generally do, often in apparent ignorance that MOND also correctly predicts which dwarfs they’ll have to invoke tidal disruption for. How such models can be considered satisfactory is quite beyond my capacity, but it does save one from the pain of having to critically reassess one’s belief system.

That’s all beyond the scope of the current paper. Here we just provide a nifty empirical result. If you want to make an apples-to-apples comparison of dwarf spheroidals with rotating dwarf irregulars, you will do well to assume Vo = 2σ*.

The neutrino mass hierarchy and cosmological limits on their mass

The neutrino mass hierarchy and cosmological limits on their mass

I’ve been busy. There is a lot I’d like to say here, but I’ve been writing the actual science papers. Can’t keep up with myself, let alone everything else. I am prompted to write here now because of a small rant by Maury Goodman in the neutrino newsletter he occasionally sends out. It resonated with me.

First, some context. Neutrinos are particles of the Standard Model of particle physics. They come in three families with corresponding leptons: the electron (νe), muon (νμ), and tau (ντ) neutrinos. Neutrinos only interact through the weak nuclear force, feeling neither the strong force nor electromagnetism. This makes them “ghostly” particles. Their immunity to these forces means they have such a low cross-section for interacting with other matter that they mostly don’t. Zillions are created every second by the nuclear reactions in the sun, and the vast majority of them breeze right through the Earth as if it were no more than a pane of glass. Their existence was first inferred indirectly from the apparent failure of some nuclear decays to conserve energy – the sum of the products seemed less than that initially present because the neutrinos were running off with mass-energy without telling anyone about it by interacting with detectors of the time.

Clever people did devise ways to detect neutrinos, if only at the rate of one in a zillion. Neutrinos are the template for WIMP dark matter, which is imagined to be some particle from beyond the Standard Model that is more massive than neutrinos but similarly interact only through the weak force. That’s how laboratory experiments search for them.

While a great deal of effort has been invested in searching for WIMPs, so far the most interesting new physics is in the neutrinos themselves. They move at practically the speed of light, and for a long time it was believed that like photons, they were pure energy with zero rest mass. Indeed, I’m old enough to have been taught that neutrinos must have zero mass; it would screw everything up if they didn’t. This attitude is summed up by an anecdote about the late, great author of the Standard Model, Steven Weinberg:

A colleague at UT once asked Weinberg if there was neutrino mass in the Standard Model. He told her “not in my Standard Model.”

Steven Weinberg, as related by Maury Goodman

As I’ve related before, In 1984 I heard a talk by Hans Bethe in which he made the case for neutrino dark matter. I was flabbergasted – I had just learned neutrinos couldn’t possibly have mass! But, as he pointed out, there were a lot of them, so it wouldn’t take much – a tiny mass each, well below the experimental limits that existed at the time – and that would suffice to make all the dark matter. So, getting over the theoretical impossibility of this hypothesis, I reckoned that if it turned out that neutrinos did indeed have mass, then surely that would be the solution to the dark matter problem.

Wrong and wrong. Neutrinos do have mass, but not enough to explain the missing mass problem. At least not that of the whole universe, as the modern estimate is that they might have a mass density that is somewhat shy of that of ordinary baryons (see below). They are too lightweight to stick to individual galaxies, which they would boil right out of: even with lots of cold dark matter, there isn’t enough mass to gravitationally bind these relativistic particles. It seems unlikely, but it is at least conceivable that initially fast-moving but heavy neutrinos might by now have slowed down enough to stick to and make up part of some massive clusters of galaxies. While interesting, that is a very far cry from being the dark matter.

We know neutrinos have mass because they have been observed to transition between flavors as they traverse space. This can only happen if there are different quantum states for them to transition between. They can’t all just be the same zero-mass photon-like entity, at least two of them need to have some mass to make for split quantum levels so there is something to oscillate between.

Here’s where it gets really weird. Neutrino mass states do not correspond uniquely to neutrino flavors. We’re used to thinking of particles as having a mass: a proton weighs 0.938272 GeV; a neutron 0.939565 GeV. (The neutron being only 0.1% heavier than the proton is itself pretty weird; this comes up again later in the context of neutrinos if I remember to bring it up.) No, there are three separate mass states, each of which are fractional probabilistic combinations of the three neutrino flavors. This sounds completely insane, so let’s turn to an illustration:

Neutrino mass states, from Adrián-Martínez et al (2016). There are two possible mass hierarchies for neutrinos, the so-called “normal” (left) and “inverted” (right) hierarchies. There are three mass states – the different bars – that are cleverly named ν1, ν2, and, you guessed it, ν3. The separation between these states is measured from oscillations in solar neutrinos (sol) or atmospheric neutrinos (atm) spawned by cosmic rays. The mass states do not correspond uniquely to neutrino flavors (νe, νμ, and ντ); instead, each mass state is made up of a combination of the three flavors as illustrated by the colored portions of the bars.

So we have three flavors of neutrino, νe, νμ, and ντ, that mix and match to make up the three mass eigenstates, ν1, ν2, and ν3. We would like to know what the masses, m1, m2, and m3, of the mass eignestates are. We don’t. All that we glean from the solar and atmospheric oscillation data is that there is a transition between these states with a corresponding squared mass difference (e.g., Δm2sol = m22-m12). These are now well measured by astronomical standards, with Δm2sol = 0.000075 eV2 and Δm2atm = 0.0025 eV2 depending a little bit on which hierarchy is correct.

OK, so now we guess. If the hierarchy is normal and m1 = 0, then m2 = √Δm2sol = 0.0087 eV and m3 = √(Δm2atm+m22) = 0.0507 eV. The first eigenstate mass need not be zero, though I’ve often heard it argued that it should be that or close to it, as the “natural” scale is m ~ √Δm2. So maybe we have something like m1 = 0.01 eV and m2 = 0.013 eV in sorta the same ballpark.

Maybe, but I am underwhelmed by the naturalness of this argument. If we apply this reasoning to the proton and neutron (Ha! I remembered!), then the mass of the proton should be of order 1 MeV not 1 GeV. That’d be interesting because the proton, neutron, and electron would all have a mass within a factor of two of each other (the electron mass is 0.511 MeV). That almost sounds natural. It’d also make for some very different atomic physics, as we’d now have hydrogen atoms that are quasi-binary systems rather than a lightweight electron orbiting a heavy proton. That might make for an interesting universe, but it wouldn’t be the one we live in.

One very useful result of assuming m1 = 0 is that it provides a hard lower limit on the sum of the neutrino masses: ∑mi = m1 + m2 + m3 > 0.059 eV. Here the hierarchy matters, with the lower limit becoming about 0.1 eV in the inverted hierarchy. So we know neutrinos weigh at least that much, maybe more.

There are of course efforts to measure the neutrino mass directly. There is a giant experiment called Katrin dedicated to this. It is challenging to measure a mass this close to zero, so all we have so far are upper limits. The first measurement from Katrin placed the 90% confidence limit < 1.1 eV. That’s about a factor of 20 larger than the lower limit, so in there somewhere.

Katrin on the move.

There is a famous result in cosmology concerning the sum of neutrino masses. Particles have a relic abundance that follows from thermodynamics. The cosmic microwave background is the thermal relic of photons. So too there should be a thermal relic of cosmic neutrinos with slightly lower temperature than the photon field. One can work out the relic abundance, so if one knows their mass, then their cosmic mass density is

Ωνh2 = ∑mi/(93.5 eV)

where h is the Hubble constant in units of 100 km/s/Mpc (e.g., equation 9.31 in my edition of Peacock’s text Cosmological Physics). For the cosmologists’ favorite (but not obviously correct) h=0.67, the lower limit on the neutrino mass translates to a mass density Ων > 0.0014, rather less than the corresponding baryon density, Ωb = 0.049. The experimental upper limit from Katrin yields Ων < 0.026, still a factor of two less than the baryons but in the same ballpark. These are nowhere near the ΩCDM ~ 0.25 needed for cosmic dark matter.

Nevertheless, the neutrino mass potentially plays an important role in structure formation. Where cold dark matter (CDM) clumps easily to facilitate the formation of structure, neutrinos retard the process. They start out relativistic in the early universe, becoming non-relativistic (slow moving) at some redshift that depends on their mass. Early on, the represent a fast-moving component of gravitating mass that counteracts the slow moving CDM. The nascent clumps formed by CDM can capture baryons (this is how galaxies are thought to form), but they are not even speed bumps to the relativistic neutrinos. If the latter have too large a mass, they pull lumps apart rather then help them grow larger. The higher the neutrino mass, the more damage they do. This in turn impacts the shape of the power spectrum by imprinting a free-streaming scale.

The power spectrum is a key measurement fit by ΛCDM. Indeed, it is arguably its crowning glory. The power spectrum is well fit by ΛCDM assuming zero neutrino mass. If Ων gets too big, it becomes a serious problem.

Consequently, cosmological observations place an indirect limit on the neutrino mass. There are a number of important assumptions that go into this limit, not all of which I am inclined to grant – most especially, the existence of CDM. But that makes it an important test, as the experimentally measured neutrino mass (whenever that happens) better not exceed the cosmological limit. If it does, that falsifies the cosmic structure formation theory based on cold dark matter.

The cosmological limit on neutrino mass obtained assuming ΛCDM structure formation is persistently an order of magnitude tighter than the experimental upper limit. For example, the Dark Energy Survey obtains ∑mi < 0.13 eV at 95% confidence. This is similar to other previous results, and only a factor of two more than the lower limit from neutrino oscillations. The window of allowed space is getting rather narrow. Indeed, it is already close to ruling out the inverted hierarchy for which ∑mi > 0.1 eV – or the assumptions on which the cosmological limit is made.

This brings us finally to Dr. Goodman’s rant, which I quote directly:

In the normal (inverted) mass order, s=m1+m2+m3 > 59 (100) meV. If as DES says, s < 130 meV, degenerate solutions are impossible. But DES “…model(s) massive neutrinos as three degenerate species of equal mass.” It’s been 34 years since we suspected neutrino masses were different and 23 years since that was accepted. Why don’t cosmology “measurements” of neutrino parameters do it right?

Maury Goodman

Here, s = ∑mi and of course 1 eV = 1000 meV. Degenerate solutions are those in which m1=m2=m3. When the absolute mass scale is large – say the neutrino mass were a huge (for it) 100 eV, then the sub-eV splittings between the mass levels illustrated above would be negligible and it would be fair to treat “massive neutrinos as three degenerate species of equal mass.” This is no longer the case when the implied upper limit on the mass is small; there is a clear difference between m1 and m2 and m3.

So why don’t cosmologists do this right? Why do they persist in pretending that m1=m2=m3?

Far be it from me to cut those guys slack, but I suspect there are two answers. One, it probably doesn’t matter (much), and two, habit. By habit, I mean that the tools used to compute the power spectrum were written at a time when degenerate species of equal mass was a perfectly safe assumption. Indeed, in those days, neutrinos were thought not to matter much at all to cosmological structure formation, so their inclusion was admirably forward looking – or, I suspect, a nerdy indulgence: “neutrinos probably don’t matter but I know how to code for them so I’ll do it by making the simplifying assumption that m1=m2=m3.”

So how much does it matter? I don’t know without editing & running the code (e.g, CAMB or CMBEASY), which would be a great project for a grad student if it hasn’t already been done. Nevertheless, the difference between neutrino mass states and the degenerate assumption is presumably small for small differences in mass. To get an idea that is human-friendly, let’s think about the redshift at which neutrinos become non-relativistic. OK, maybe that doesn’t sound too friendly, but it is less likely to make your eyes cross than a discussion of power spectra Fourier transforms and free-streaming wave numbers.

Neutrinos are very lightweight, so start out as relativistic particles in the early universe (high redshift z). As the universe expands it cools, and the neutrinos slow down. At some point, they transition from behaving like a photon field to a non-relativistic gas of particles. This happens at

1+znr ≈ 1987 mν/(1 eV)

(eq. 4 of Agarwal & Feldman 2012; they also discuss the free-streaming scale and power spectra for those of you who want to get into it). For a 0.5 eV neutrino that is comfortably acceptable to the current experimental upper limit, znr = 992. This is right around recombination, and would mess everything up bigly – hence the cosmological limit being much stricter. For a degenerate neutrino of 0.13 eV, znr = 257. So one way to think about the cosmological limit is that we need to delay the impact of neutrinos on the power spectrum for at least this long in order to maintain the good fit to the data.

How late can the impact of neutrinos be delayed? For the minimum masses m1 = 0, m2 = 0.0087, m3 = 0.0507 eV, zero mass neutrinos always remain relativistic, but z2 = 16 and z3 = 100. These redshifts are readily distinguishable, so maybe Dr. Goodman has a valid point. Well, he definitely has a valid point, but these redshifts aren’t probed by the currently available data, so cosmologists probably figure it is OK to stick to degenerate neutrino masses for now.

The redshifts z2 = 16 and z3 = 100 are coincident with other important events in cosmic history, cosmic dawn and the dark ages, so it is worth considering the potential impact of neutrinos on the power spectra predicted for 21 cm absorption at those redshifts. There are experiments working to detect this, but measurement of the power spectrum is still a ways off. I am not aware of any theoretical consideration of this topic, so let’s consult an expert. Thanks to Avi Loeb for pointing out these (and a lot more!) references on short notice: Pritchard & Pierpaoli (2008), Villaescusa-Navarro et al. (2015), Obuljen et al. (2018). That’s a lot to process, and more than I’m willing to digest on the fly. But it looks like at least some cosmologists are grappling with the issue Dr. Goodman raises.

Any way we slice it, it looks like there are things still to learn. The direct laboratory measurement of the neutrino mass is not guaranteed to be less than the upper limit from cosmology. It would be surprising, but that would make matters a lot more interesting.



I read somewhere – I don’t think it was Kuhn himself, but someone analyzing Kuhn – that there came a point in the history of science where there was a divergence between scientists, with different scientists disagreeing about what counts as a theory, what counts as a test of a theory, what even counts as evidence. We have reached that point with the mass discrepancy problem.

For many years, I worried that if the field ever caught up with me, it would zoom past. That hasn’t happened. Instead, it has diverged towards a place that I barely recognize as science. It looks more like the Matrix – a simulation – that is increasingly sophisticated yet self-contained, making only parsimonious contact with observational reality and unable to make predictions that apply to real objects. Scaling relations and statistical properties, sure. Actual galaxies with NGC numbers, not so much. That, to me, is not science.

I have found it increasingly difficult to communicate across the gap built on presumptions buried so deep that they cannot be questioned. One obvious one is the existence of dark matter. This has been fueled by cosmologists who take it for granted and particle physicists eager to discover it who repeat “we know dark matter exists*; we just need to find it” like a religious mantra. This is now ingrained so deeply that it has become difficult to convey even the simple concept that what we call “dark matter” is really just evidence of a discrepancy: we do not know whether it is literally some kind of invisible mass, or a breakdown of the equations that lead us to infer invisible mass.

I try to look at all sides of a problem. I can say nice things about dark matter (and cosmology); I can point out problems with it. I can say nice things about MOND; I can point out problems with it. The more common approach is to presume that any failing of MOND is an automatic win for dark matter. This is a simple-minded logical fallacy: just because MOND gets something wrong doesn’t mean dark matter gets it right. Indeed, my experience has been that cases that don’t make any sense in MOND don’t make any sense in terms of dark matter either. Nevertheless, this attitude persists.

I made this flowchart as a joke in 2012, but it persists in being an uncomfortably fair depiction of how many people who work on dark matter approach the problem.

I don’t know what is right, but I’m pretty sure this attitude is wrong. Indeed, it empowers a form of magical thinking: dark matter has to be correct, so any data that appear to contradict it are either wrong, or can be explained with feedback. Indeed, the usual trajectory has been denial first (that can’t be true!) and explanation later (we knew it all along!) This attitude is an existential threat to the scientific method, and I am despondent in part because I worry we are slipping into a post-scientific reality, where even scientists are little more than priests of a cold, dark religion.

*If we’re sure dark matter exists, it is not obvious that we need to be doing expensive experiments to find it.

Why bother?

The RAR extended by weak lensing

The RAR extended by weak lensing

Last time, I expressed despondency about the lack of progress due to attitudes that in many ways remain firmly entrenched in the 1980s. Recently a nice result has appeared, so maybe there is some hope.

The radial acceleration relation (RAR) measured in rotationally supported galaxies extends down to an observed acceleration of about gobs = 10-11 m/s/s, about one part in 1000000000000 of the acceleration we feel here on the surface of the Earth. In some extreme dwarfs, we get down below 10-12 m/s/s. But accelerations this low are hard to find except in the depths of intergalactic space.

Weak lensing data

Brouwer et al have obtained a new constraint down to 10-12.5 m/s/s using weak gravitational lensing. This technique empowers one to probe the gravitational potential of massive galaxies out to nearly 1 Mpc. (The bulk of the luminous mass is typically confined within a few kpc.) To do this, one looks for the net statistical distortion in galaxies behind a lensing mass like a giant elliptical galaxy. I always found this approach a little scary, because you can’t see the signal directly with your eyes the way you can the velocities in a galaxy measured with a long slit spectrograph. Moreover, one has to bin and stack the data, so the result isn’t for an individual galaxy, but rather the average of galaxies within the bin, however defined. There are further technical issues that makes this challenging, but it’s what one has to do to get farther out.

Doing all that, Brouwer et al obtained this RAR:

The radial acceleration relation from weak lensing measured by Brouwer et al (2021). The red squares and bluescale at the top right are the RAR from rotating galaxies (McGaugh et al 2016). The blue, black, and orange points are the new weak lensing results.

To parse a few of the details: there are two basic results here, one from the GAMA survey (the blue points) and one from KiDS. KiDS is larger so has smaller formal errors, but relies on photometric redshifts (which uses lots of colors to guess the best match redshift). That’s probably OK in a statistical sense, but they are not as accurate as the spectroscopic redshifts measured for GAMA. There is a lot of structure in redshift space that gets washed out by photometric redshift estimates. The fact that the two basically agree hopefully means that this doesn’t matter here.

There are two versions of the KiDS data, one using just the stellar mass to estimate gbar, and another that includes an estimate of the coronal gas mass. Many galaxies are surrounded by a hot corona of gas. This is negligible at small radii where the stars dominate, but becomes progressively more important as part of the baryonic mass budget as one moves out. How important? Hard to say. But it certainly matters on scales of a few hundred kpc (this is the CGM in the baryon pie chart, which suggests roughly equal mass in stars (all within a few tens of kpc) and hot coronal gas (mostly out beyond 100 kpc). This corresponds to the orange points; the black points are what happens if we neglect this component (which certainly isn’t zero). So in there somewhere – this seems to be the dominant systematic uncertainty.

Getting past these pesky detail, this result is cool on many levels. First, the RAR appears to persist as a relation. That needn’t have happened. Second, it extends the RAR by a couple of decades to much lower accelerations. Third, it applies to non-rotating as well as rotationally supported galaxies (more on that in a bit). Fourth, the data at very low accelerations follow a straight line with a slope of about 1/2 in this log-log plot. That means gobs ~ gbar1/2. That provides a test of theory.

What does it mean?

Empirically, this is a confirmation that a known if widely unexpected relation extends further than previously known. That’s pretty neat in its own right, without any theoretical baggage. We used to be able to appreciate empirical relations better (e.g, the stellar main sequence!) before we understood what they meant. Now we seem to put the cart (theory) before the horse (data). That said, we do want to use data to test theories. Usually I discuss dark matter first, but that is complicated, so let’s start with MOND.

Test of MOND

MOND predicts what we see.

I am tempted to leave it at that, because it’s really that simple. But experience has taught me that no result is so obvious that someone won’t claim exactly the opposite, so let’s explore it a bit more.

There are three tests: whether the relation (i) exists, (ii) has the right slope, and (iii) has the right normalization. Tests (i) and (ii) are an immediate pass. It also looks like (iii) is very nearly correct, but it depends in detail on the baryonic mass-to-light ratio – that of the stars plus any coronal gas.

MOND is represented by the grey line that’s hard to see, but goes through the data at both high and low acceleration. At high accelerations, this particular line is a fitting function I chose for convenience. There’s nothing special about it, nor is it even specific to MOND. That was the point of our 2016 RAR paper: this relation exists in the data whether it is due to MOND or not. Conceivably, the RAR might be a relation that only applies to rotating galaxies for some reason that isn’t MOND. That’s hard to sustain, since the data look like MOND – so much so that the two are impossible to distinguish in this plane.

In terms of MOND, the RAR traces the interpolation function that quantifies the transition from the Newtonian regime where gobs = gbar to the deep MOND regime where gobs ~ gbar1/2. MOND does not specify the precise form of the interpolation function, just the asymptotic limits. The data trace that the transition, providing an empirical assessment of the shape of the interpolation function around the acceleration scale a0. That’s interesting and will hopefully inform further theory development, but it is not critical to testing MOND.

What MOND does very explicitly predict is the asymptotic behavior gobs ~ gbar1/2 in the deep MOND regime of low accelerations (gobs << a0). That the lensing data are well into this regime makes them an excellent test of this strong prediction of MOND. It passes with flying colors: the data have precisely the slope anticipated by Milgrom nearly 40 years ago.

This didn’t have to happen. All sorts of other things might have happened. Indeed, as we discussed in Lelli et al (2017), there were some hints that the relation flattened, saturating at a constant gobs around 10-11 m/s/s. I was never convinced that this was real, as it only appears in the least certain data, and there were already some weak lensing data to lower accelerations.

Milgrom (2013) analyzed weak lensing data that were available then, obtaining this figure:

Velocity dispersion-luminosity relation obtained from weak lensing data by Milgrom (2013). Lines are the expectation of MOND for mass-to-light ratios ranging from 1 to 6 in the r’-band, as labeled. The sample is split into red (early type, elliptical) and blue (late type, spiral) galaxies. The early types have a systematically higher M/L, as expected for their older stellar populations.

The new data corroborate this result. Here is a similar figure from Brouwer et al:

The RAR from weak lensing for galaxies split by Sesic index (left) and color (right).

Just looking at these figures, one can see the same type-dependent effect found by Milgrom. However, there is an important difference: Milgrom’s plot leaves the unknown mass-to-light ratio as a free parameter, while the new plot has an estimate of this built-in. So if the adopted M/L is correct, then the red and blue galaxies form parallel RARs that are almost but not quite exactly the same. That would not be consistent with MOND, which should place everything on the same relation. However, this difference is well within the uncertainty of the baryonic mass estimate – not just the M/L of the stars, but also the coronal gas content (i.e., the black vs. orange points in the first plot). MOND predicted this behavior well in advance of the observation, so one would have to bend over backwards, rub one’s belly, and simultaneously punch oneself in the face to portray this as anything short of a fantastic success of MOND.

The data! Look at the data!

I say that because I’m sure people will line up to punch themselves in the face in exactly this fashion*. One of the things that persuades me to suspect that there might be something to MOND is the lengths to which people will go to deny even its most obvious successes. At the same time, they are more than willing to cut any amount of slack necessary to save LCDM. An example is provided by Ludlow et al., who claim to explain the RAR ‘naturally’ from simulations – provided they spot themselves a magic factor of two in the stellar mass-to-light ratio. If it were natural, they wouldn’t need that arbitrary factor. By the same token, if you recognize that you might have been that far off about M*/L, you have to extend that same grace to MOND as you do to LCDM. That’s a basic tenet of objectivity, which used to be a value in science. It doesn’t look like a correction as large as a factor of two is necessary here given the uncertainty in the coronal gas. So, preemptively: Get a grip, people.

MOND predicts what we see. No other theory beat it to the punch. The best one can hope to do is to match its success after the fact by coming up with some other theory that looks just like MOND.

Test of LCDM

In order to test LCDM, we have to agree what LCDM predicts. That agreement is lacking. There is no clear prediction. This complicates the discussion, as the best one can hope to do is give a thorough discussion of all the possibilities that people have so far considered, which differ in important ways. That exercise is necessarily incomplete – people can always come up with new and different ideas for how to explain what they didn’t predict. I’ve been down the road of being thorough many times, which gets so complicated that no one reads it. So I will not attempt to be thorough here, and only explore enough examples to give a picture of where we’re currently at.

The tests are the same as above: should the relation (i) exist? (ii) have the observed slope? and (iii) normalization?

The first problem for LCDM is that the relation exists (i). There is no reason to expect this relation to exist. There was (and in some corners, continues to be) a lot of denial that the RAR even exists, because it shouldn’t. It does, and it looks just like what MOND predicts. LCDM is not MOND, and did not anticipate this behavior because there is no reason to do so.

If we persist past this point – and it is not obvious that we should – then we may say, OK, here’s this unexpected relation; how do we explain it? For starters, we do have a prediction for the density profiles of dark matter halos; these fall off as r-3. That translates to some slope in the RAR plane, but not a unique relation, as the normalization can and should be different for each halo. But it’s not even the right slope. The observed slope corresponds to a logarithmic potential in which the density profile falls off as r-2. That’s what is required to give a flat rotation curve in Newtonian dynamics, which is why the psedoisothermal halo was the standard model before simulations gave us the NFW halo with its r-3 fall off. The lensing data are like a flat rotation curve that extends indefinitely far out; they are not like an NFW halo.

That’s just stating the obvious. To do more requires building a model. Here is an example from Oman et al. of a model that follows the logic I just outlined, adding some necessary and reasonable assumptions about the baryons:

The “slight offset” from the observed RAR mentioned in the caption is the factor of two in stellar mass they spotted themselves in Ludlow et al. (2017).

The model is the orange line. It deviates from the black line that is the prediction of MOND. The data look like MOND, not like the orange line.

One can of course build other models. Brouwer et al discuss some. I will not explore these in detail, and only note that the models are not consistent, so there is no clear prediction from LCDM. To explore just one a little further, this figure appears at the very end of their paper, in appendix C:

The orange line in this case is some extrapolation of the model of Navarro et al. (2017).** This also does not work, though it doesn’t fail by as much as the model of Oman et al. I don’t understand how they make the extrapolation here, as a major prediction of Navarro et al. was that gobs would saturate at 10-11 ms/s/s; the orange line should flatten out near the middle of this plot. Indeed, they argued that we would never observe any lower accelerations, and that

“extending observations to radii well beyond the inner halo regions should lead to systematic deviations from the MDAR.”

– Navarro et al (2017)

This is a reasonable prediction for LCDM, but it isn’t what happened – the RAR continues as predicted by MOND. (The MDAR is equivalent to the RAR).

The astute reader may notice that many of these theorists are frequently coauthors, so you might expect they’d come up with a self-consistent model and stick to it. Unfortunately, consistency is not a hobgoblin that afflicts galaxy formation theory, and there are as many predictions as there are theorists (more for the prolific ones). They’re all over the map – which is the problem. LCDM makes no prediction to which everyone agrees. This makes it impossible to test the theory. If one model is wrong, that is just because that particular model is wrong, not because the theory is under threat. The theory is never under threat as there always seems to be another modeler who will claim success where others fail, whether they genuinely succeed or not. That they claim success is all that is required. Cognitive dissonance then takes over, people believe what they want to hear, and all anomalies are forgiven and forgotten. There never seems to be a proper prior that everyone would agree falsifies the theory if it fails. Galaxy formation in LCDM has become epicycles on steroids.

Whither now?

I have no idea. Continue to improve the data, of course. But the more important thing that needs to happen is a change in attitude. The attitude is that LCDM as a cosmology must be right so the mass discrepancy must be caused by non-baryonic dark matter so any observation like this must have a conventional explanation, no matter how absurd and convoluted. We’ve been stuck in this rut since before we even put the L in CDM. We refuse to consider alternatives so long as the standard model has not been falsified, but I don’t see how it can be falsified to the satisfaction of all – there’s always a caveat, a rub, some out that we’re willing to accept uncritically, no matter how silly. So in the rut we remain.

A priori predictions are an important part of the scientific method because they can’t be fudged. On the rare occasions when they come true, it is supposed to make us take note – even change our minds. These lensing results are just another of many previous corroborations of a priori predictions by MOND. What people do with that knowledge – build on it, choose to ignore it, or rant in denial – is up to them.

*Bertolt Brecht mocked this attitude amongst the Aristotelian philosophers in his play about Galileo, noting how they were eager to criticize the new dynamics if the heavier rock beat the lighter rock to the ground by so much as a centimeter in the Leaning Tower of Pisa experiment while turning a blind eye to their own prediction being off by a hundred meters.

**I worked hard to salvage dark matter, which included a lot of model building. I recognize the model of Navarro et al as a slight variation on a model I built in 2000 but did not publish because it was obviously wrong. It takes a lot of time to write a scientific paper, so a lot of null results never get reported. In 2000 when I did this, the natural assumption to make was that galaxies all had about the same disk fraction (the ratio of stars to dark matter, e.g., assumption (i) of Mo et al 1998). This predicts far too much scatter in the RAR, which is why I abandoned the model. Since then, this obvious and natural assumption has been replaced by abundance matching, in which the stellar mass fraction is allowed to vary to account for the difference between the predicted halo mass function and the observed galaxy luminosity function. In effect, we replaced a universal constant with a rolling fudge factor***. This has the effect of compressing the range of halo masses for a given range of stellar masses. This in turn reduces the “predicted” scatter in the RAR, just by taking away some of the variance that was naturally there. One could do better still with even more compression, as the data are crudely consistent with all galaxies living in the same dark matter halo. This is of course a consequence of MOND, in which the conventionally inferred dark matter halo is just the “extra” force specified by the interpolation function.

***This is an example of what I’ll call prediction creep for want of a better term. Originally, we thought that galaxies corresponded to balls of gas that had had time to cool and condense. As data accumulated, we realized that the baryon fractions of galaxies were not equal to the cosmic value fb; they were rather less. That meant that only a fraction of the baryons available in a dark matter halo had actually cooled to form the visible disk. So we introduced a parameter md = Mdisk/Mtot (as Mo et al. called it) where the disk is the visible stars and gas and the total includes that and all the dark matter out to the notional edge of the dark matter halo. We could have any md < fb, but they were in the same ballpark for massive galaxies, so it seemed reasonable to think that the disk fraction was a respectable fraction of the baryons – and the same for all galaxies, perhaps with some scatter. This also does not work; low mass galaxies have much lower md than high mass galaxies. Indeed, md becomes ridiculously small for the smallest galaxies, less than 1% of the available fb (a problem I’ve been worried about since the previous century). At each step, there has been a creep in what we “predict.” All the baryons should condense. Well, most of them. OK, fewer in low mass galaxies. Why? Feedback! How does that work? Don’t ask! You don’t want to know. So for a while the baryon fraction of a galaxy was just a random number stochastically generated by chance and feedback. That is reasonable (feedback is chaotic) but it doesn’t work; the variation of the disk fraction is a clear function of mass that has to have little scatter (or it pumps up the scatter in the Tully-Fisher relation). So we gradually backed our way into a paradigm where the disk fraction is a function md(M*). This has been around long enough that we have gotten used to the idea. Instead of seeing it for what it is – a rolling fudge factor – we call it natural as if it had been there from the start, as if we expected it all along. This is prediction creep. We did not predict anything of the sort. This is just an expectation built through familiarity with requirements imposed by the data, not genuine predictions made by the theory. It has become common to assert that some unnatural results are natural; this stems in part from assuming part of the answer: any model built on abundance matching is unnatural to start, because abundance matching is unnatural. Necessary, but not remotely what we expected before all the prediction creep. It’s creepy how flexible our predictions can be.



I have become despondent for the progress of science.

Despite enormous progress both observational and computational, we have made little progress in solving the missing mass problem. The issue is not one of technical progress. It is psychological.

Words matter. We are hung up on missing mass as literal dark matter. As Bekenstein pointed out, a less misleading name would have been the acceleration discrepancy, because the problem only appears at low accelerations. But that sounds awkward. We humans like our simple catchphrases, and often cling to them no matter what. We called it dark matter, so it must be dark matter!

Vera Rubin succinctly stated the appropriately conservative attitude of most scientists in 1982 during the discussion at IAU 100:

To highlight the end of her quote:

I believe most of us would rather alter Newtonian gravitational theory only as a last resort.

Rubin, V.C. 1983, in the proceedings of IAU Symposium 100: Internal Kinematics and Dynamics of Galaxies, p. 10.


In 1982, this was exactly the right attitude. It had been clearly established that there was a discrepancy between what you see and what you get. But that was about it. So, we could add a little mass that’s hard to see, or we could change a fundamental law of nature. Easy call.

By this time, the evidence for a discrepancy was clear, but the hypothesized solutions were still in development. This was before the publication of the suggestion of Peebles and separately by Steigman & Turner of cold dark matter. This was before the publication of Milgrom’s first papers on MOND. (Note that these ideas took years to develop, so much of this work was simultaneous and not done in a vacuum.) All that was clear was that something extra was needed. It wasn’t even clear how much – a factor of two in mass sufficed for many of the early observations. At that time, it was easy to imagine that amount to be lurking in low mass stars. No need for new physics, either gravitational or particle.

The situation quickly snowballed. From a factor of two, we soon needed a factor of ten. Whatever was doing the gravitating, it exceeded the mass density allowed in normal matter by big bang nucleosynthesis. By the time I was a grad student in the late ’80s, it was obvious that there had to be some kind of dark mass, and it had to be non-baryonic. That meant new particle physics (e.g., a WIMP). The cold dark matter paradigm took root.

Like a fifty year mortgage, we are basically still stuck with this decision we made in the ’80s. It made sense then, given what was then known. Does it still? At what point have we reached the last resort? More importantly, apparently, how do we persuade ourselves that we have reached this point?

Peebles provides a nice recent summary of all the ways in which LCDM is a good approximation to cosmologically relevant observations. There are a lot, and I don’t disagree with him. The basic argument is that it is very unlikely that these things all agree unless LCDM is basically correct.

Trouble is, the exact same argument applies for MOND. I’m not going to justify this here – it should be obvious. If it isn’t, you haven’t been paying attention. It is unlikely to the point of absurdity that a wholly false theory should succeed in making so many predictions of such diversity and precision as MOND has.

These are both examples of what philosophers of science call a No Miracles Argument. The problem is that it cuts both ways. I will refrain from editorializing here on which would be the bigger miracle, and simply note that the obvious thing to do is try to combine the successes of both, especially given that they don’t overlap much. And yet, the Venn diagram of scientists working to satisfy both ends is vanishingly small. Not zero, but the vast majority of the community remains stuck in the ’80s: it has to be cold dark matter. I remember having this attitude, and how hard it was to realize that it might be wrong. The intellectual blinders imposed by this attitude are more opaque than a brick wall. This psychological hangup is the primary barrier to real scientific progress (as opposed to incremental progress in the sense used by Kuhn).

Unfortunately, both CDM and MOND rely on a tooth fairy. In CDM, it is the conceit that non-baryonic dark matter actually exists. This requires new physics beyond the Standard Model of particle physics. All the successes of LCDM follow if and only if dark matter actually exists. This we do not know (contrary to many assertions to this effect); all we really know is that there are discrepancies. Whether the discrepancies are due to literal dark matter or a change in the force law is maddeningly ambiguous. Of course, the conceit in MOND is not just that there is a modified force law, but that there must be a physical mechanism by which it occurs. The first part is the well-established discrepancy. The last part remains wanting.

When we think we know, we cease to learn.

Dr. Radhakrishnan

The best scientists are always in doubt. As well as enumerating its successes, Peebles also discusses some of the ways in which LCDM might be better. Should massive galaxies appear as they do? (Not really.) Should the voids really be so empty? (MOND predicted that one.) I seldom hear these concerns from other cosmologists. That’s because they’re not in doubt. The attitude is that dark matter has to exist, and any contrary evidence is simply a square peg that can be made to fit the round hole if we pound hard enough.

And so, we’re stuck still pounding the ideas of the ’80s into the heads of innocent students, creating a closed ecosystem of stagnant ideas self-perpetuated by the echo chamber effect. I see no good way out of this; indeed, the quality of debate is palpably lower now than it was in the previous century.

So I have become despondent for the progress of science.