This One Distant, Red, Gas-Free Galaxy Defies Astronomers’ Expectations
“When two similarly-sized galaxies merge, it triggers a starburst: a massive formation of new stars. Under the right circumstances, some gas will form stars while the remainder is expelled, lost forever to the intergalactic medium. Once the gas for forming new stars is used up, the galaxy simply ages as the bluest, most massive stars die off. Over billions of years, only the redder, dimmer, lower mass stars remain.”
In astronomy, young galaxies actively form stars, and glow bright blue through the process. Only after many billions of years and at least one cataclysmic event do galaxies settle down into a gas-free, red state, once all the bluer stars have died out. “Red and dead” galaxies appear in the late Universe, normally as giant elliptical galaxies that lost their gas aeons ago.
Which is why this one galaxy is so puzzling: it’s red, dead, massive and compact, but it’s also sending us its light from 10.8 billion years ago!
How did this galaxy get so old-looking when it’s actually so young? The mystery continues, but here’s what we know so far.
What Came First: Inflation Or The Big Bang?
“In fact, our entire observable Universe contains no signatures at all from almost all of its pre-hot-Big-Bang history; only the final 10^-32 seconds (or so) of inflation even leave observably imprinted signatures on our Universe. We do not know where the inflationary state came from, however. It might arise from a pre-existing state that does have a singularity, it might have existed in its inflationary form forever, or the Universe itself might even be cyclical in nature.
There are a lot of people who mean “the initial singularity” when they say “the Big Bang,” and to those people, I say it’s long past due for you to get with the times. The hot Big Bang cannot be extrapolated back to a singularity, but only to the end of an inflationary state that preceded it. We cannot state with any confidence, because there are no signatures of it even in principle, what preceded the very end-stages of inflation. Was there a singularity? Maybe, but even if so, it doesn’t have anything to do with the Big Bang.”
Have you heard that our Universe began some 13.8 billion years ago with the start of the Big Bang? There’s a good chance that some version of that story has made it to you, but it unfortunately has probably gotten to you the same way it got to me: with an error that’s many decades out of date.
What if I told you that you couldn’t extrapolate the Universe back to a singularity, where all the matter and energy was consolidated into a space so tiny that the laws of physics break down?
What if I told you that we have a verified, validated theory of what happened before the Big Bang, and it has (for decades, now) superseded and replaced the idea of an initial singularity as the earliest stages of the Universe?
Meet cosmic inflation, the pre-origin of our Universe that set up and gave rise to the Big Bang, and learn why the naysayers are out of legs to stand on.
Did Our Universe’s Structure Grow From The Top-Down Or From The Bottom-Up?
“A century ago, we didn’t even know what our Universe looked like. We didn’t know where it came from, whether or when it began, how old it was, what it was made out of, whether it was expanding, what was present within it. Today, we have scientific answers to all of these questions to within about 1% accuracy, plus a whole lot more.
The Universe was born almost perfectly uniform, with 1-part-in-30,000 imperfections present on practically all scales. The largest cosmic scales have slightly larger imperfections than the smaller ones, but the smaller ones are also substantial and collapse first. We likely formed the first stars just 50-to-200 million years after the Big Bang; the first galaxies arose 200-to-550 million years after the Big Bang; the largest galaxy clusters took billions of years to get there.
The Universe is neither top-down nor bottom-up, but a combination of both that implies it was born with an almost scale-invariant spectrum. With future survey telescopes such as LSST, WFIRST, and the next-generation of 30-meter-class ground-based telescopes, we’re poised to measure galaxy clustering as never before. After a lifetime of uncertainty, we can finally give a scientific answer to understanding how our Universe’s large-scale structure came to be.”
In a top-down scenario, the Universe would form structures on large scales first, then fragment to form individual galaxies. In a bottom-up scenario, the Universe forms tiny structures first, which then collect and clump under their own gravity to bring about a Universe rich in large-scale structure. So, which one is the Universe we have?
As is often the case, the answer is much more complex than just one of these two possibilities. Come get the full story today.
Is The Universe Filled With Black Holes That Shouldn’t Exist?
“What about at the high end of the stellar mass range of black holes? It’s true that pair instability supernovae are real and are indeed a limiting factor, as they don’t produce black holes. However, there’s an entirely separate way to produce black holes that is not particularly well understood at this time: direct collapse.
Whenever you have a large enough collection of mass, whether it’s in the form of a cloud of gas or a star or anywhere in between, there’s a chance that it can form a black hole directly: collapse due to insufficient pressure to hold it up against gravitation. For many years, simulations predicted that black holes should spontaneously arise through this process, but observations failed to see a confirmation. Then, a few years ago, one came in an unlikely place, as the Hubble Space Telescope saw a 25 solar mass star simply “disappear” without a supernova or other cataclysm. The only explanation? Direct collapse.”
As far as our best theories are concerned, the Universe isn’t filled with black holes of all different masses. Instead, the black holes that the Universe forms are inextricably linked to the processes by which the Universe makes the objects that then become black holes. From stars, there’s a theoretical lower limit of about 5 solar masses, and yet we saw a black hole of about 3 solar masses get created. There should be an enormous drop in black hole frequency above about 50 solar masses, but LIGO may be about to challenge that. And even at the highest end, there should be an upper limit to the masses of supermassive black holes, but a few of the ones we’ve found challenge that limit, too.
Does this mean the Universe is filled with black holes that shouldn’t exist? Or does it simply mean that we need superior models? Get the full story today.
Was Dark Matter Really Created Before The Big Bang?
“So if that’s what the observational data points towards, what can we say about where dark matter comes from? A recent headline that made quite a splash claimed that dark matter may have originated before the Big Bang, and many people were confused by this assertion.
It might seem counterintuitive, because the way most people conceive of the Big Bang is as a singular point of infinite density. If you say the Universe is expanding and cooling today, then you can extrapolate it back to a state where all the matter and energy was compressed into a single point in space: a singularity. This corresponds to an initial start time for our Universe — the beginning of our Universe — and that’s the Big Bang.
So how could something that exists in our Universe, like dark matter, have originated before the Big Bang? Because the Big Bang wasn’t actually the beginning of space and time.”
Last month, a paper came out claiming that dark matter may have been created before the Big Bang. Although it might sound implausible, it’s absolutely a possibility that we cannot rule out, although it might be an idea that’s extraordinarily difficult to test when we compare it up against the other options. We have to keep every scenario that hasn’t been ruled out in mind, and understand that despite all we don’t know about dark matter, there’s a ton of indirect evidence brought to us by the full suite of observations at our disposal.
Could dark matter have been created before the Big Bang? Yes, but three other possibilities are maybe even more viable. Come find out why today.
A black hole is the most powerful astronomical object, because it can say the n word.
We Have Already Entered The Sixth And Final Era Of Our Universe
“In the end, only black dwarf stars and isolated masses to small to ignite nuclear fusion will remain, sparsely populated and disconnected from one another in this empty, ever-expanding cosmos. These final-state corpses will exist even googols of years onward, continuing to persist as dark energy remains the dominant factor in our Universe.
This last era, of dark energy domination, has already begun. Dark energy became important for the Universe’s expansion 6 billion years ago, and began dominating the Universe’s energy content around the time our Sun and Solar System were being born. The Universe may have six unique stages, but for the entirety of Earth’s history, we’ve already been in the final one. Take a good look at the Universe around us. It will never be this rich — or this easy to access — ever again.”
There are a whole slew of events and stages that the Universe has passed through over its cosmic history, and plenty of more to come as the future continues to unfold. But as far as eras of the Universe go, where things make hard transitions from one epoch to another, all of our cosmic history can be divided into six of them. From inflation to the primordial soup of the hot Big Bang to the plasma-rich early Universe to the cosmic dark ages to the stellar age to the dark energy era, our entire natural history fits nicely within these boxes.
The only existential problem? The entirety of Earth’s existence has occurred in this sixth and final era. We’re already in the end stages; see how far we’ve come and learn how far we’ll go!
Ask Ethan: Can We Really Get A Universe From Nothing?
“One concept bothers me. Perhaps you can help. I see it in used many places, but never really explained. “A universe from Nothing” and the concept of negative gravity. As I learned my Newtonian physics, you could put the zero point of the gravitational potential anywhere, only differences mattered. However Newtonian physics never deals with situations where matter is created… Can you help solidify this for me, preferably on [a] conceptual level, maybe with a little calculation detail?”
You’ve very likely heard two counterintuitive things about the Universe before. One of them is that the Universe arose from nothing, and this defies our intuition about how it’s impossible to get something from nothing. The second is that we have four fundamental forces in the Universe: gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. So how, then, do we account for the fact that the Universe’s expansion is accelerating? Isn’t this clearly evidence for a fifth force, one with negative gravity?
Guess what? These two counterintuitive aspects of reality are related. If you understand them both, you’re one step closer to making sense of the Universe.
Did Time Have A Beginning?
“Even though we can trace our cosmic history all the way back to the earliest stages of the hot Big Bang, that isn’t enough to answer the question of how (or if) time began. Going even earlier, to the end-stages of cosmic inflation, we can learn how the Big Bang was set up and began, but we have no observable information about what occurred prior to that. The final fraction-of-a-second of inflation is where our knowledge ends.
Thousands of years after we laid out the three major possibilities for how time began — as having always existed, as having begun a finite duration ago in the past, or as being a cyclical entity — we are no closer to a definitive answer. Whether time is finite, infinite, or cyclical is not a question that we have enough information within our observable Universe to answer. Unless we figure out a new way to gain information about this deep, existential question, the answer may forever be beyond the limits of what is knowable.”
If you didn’t know anything about the Universe, you might intuit three possibilities for how time originated. Either it had a beginning a finite duration ago, or it existed for an eternity into the past, or it is cyclical in nature, with no beginning, end, or true delineation between past and future. But we have lots of physical evidence today. We know about the Big Bang and what its limits are. We know about cosmic inflation, which preceded and set up the Big Bang. And we know about dark energy, which determines the fate of our Universe.
With everything we know, what can we say about whether time had a beginning or not? Not enough, unfortunately, but the possibilities remain tantalizing. Find out what we do and don’t know today!