What about magnetic fields?

If you’re stuck for a question to ask at the end of an astronomy seminar and don’t want to reveal the fact that you were asleep for most of it, there are some general questions that you can nearly always ask regardless of the topic of the talk without appearing foolish. A few years ago, “how would the presence of dust affect your conclusions?” was quite a good one, but the danger these days is that with the development of far-infrared and submillimetre instrumentation and the proliferation of people using it, this could actually have been the topic of the talk you just dozed through. However, no technological advances have threatened the viability of another old stalwart: “What about magnetic fields?”.

These thoughts came into my mind when I was listening to an excellent talk by Richard Ellis at the Royal Astronomical Society last Friday about the current state of play in the (very complicated) field of galaxy formation. I hasten to add that nobody there was sleeping. Well, not many.

In theory, galaxies condense out of the Big Bang as lumps of dark matter. Seeded by primordial density fluctuations and amplified by the action of gravity these are supposed to grow in a hierarchical, bottom-up fashion with little blobs forming first and then merging into larger objects. The physics of this process is relatively simple (at least if the dark matter is cold) as it involves only gravity.

But, by definition, the dark matter can’t be seen. At least not directly, though its presence can be inferred indirectly by dynamical measurements and gravitational lensing. What astronomers generally see is starlight, although it often arrives at the telescope in an unfamiliar part of the spectrum owing to the redshifting effect of the expansion of the Universe. The stars in galaxies sit inside the blobs of dark matter, which are usually called “haloes” although blobs is a better name. In art the whole purpose of a halo is that you can see it.

How stars form is a very complicated question to answer even when you’re asking about nearby stellar nurseries like the Orion Nebula. The basic idea is that a gas cloud cools and contracts, radiating away energy until it gets sufficiently hot that nuclear burning switches on and pressure is generated that can oppose further collapse. The early stages of this processs, though, involve very many imponderables. Star formation doesn’t just involve gravity but lots of other processes, including additional volumes of Landau & Lifshitz, such as hydrodynamics, radiative transfer and, yes, magnetic fields. Naively, despite the complicated physics, it might still be imagined that stars form in the little blobs of dark matter first and then gradually get incorporated in larger objects.

Unfortunately, as Richard Ellis pointed out, this naive picture doesn’t seem to work. Deep surveys of galaxies suggest that the most massive galaxies formed their stars quite early in the Big Bang and have been relatively quiescent since then, while smaller objects contain younger stars. In other words, pretty much the opposite of what one might have thought. This phenomenon (known appropriately in the time of the Credit Crunch as “downsizing”) suggests that something inhibits star formation early on in all but the largest of the largest haloes. It could be that powerful feedback from activity in the nuclear regions associated with a central black hole might do this, or it could be something a little less exotic such as stellar winds. Or it could be that the whole scheme is wrong in a more fundamental way. I personally wouldn’t go so far as to throw out the whole framework, as it has scored many successes, but it is definitely an open question what is going on.

Then I was reminded by a posting on the arxiv about an interesting paper that appeared in Nature last month by Art Wolfe and collaborators which revealed the presence of an enormously strong magnetic field in a galaxy at the relatively high redshift of 0.692. Actually it’s about 84 microGauss. OK, so this is just one object but the magnetic field in it is remarkably strong. It could be a freak occurence resulting from some kind of shock or bubble, but it does seem to fit in a pattern in which young galaxies generally seem to have much higher magnetic fields than previously expected. Obviously we need to know how many more such magnetic monsters are lurking out there.

So why are these results so surprising? Didn’t we already know galaxies have magnetic fields in them?

Well, yes we did. The Milky Way has a magnetic field with a strength of about 10 microGauss, much lower than that discovered by Wolfe et al. But the point is that if we understand them properly, galactic magnetic fields are supposed to be have been much lower in the past than they are now. The standard theoretical picture is that a (tiny) initial seed field is amplified by a kind of dynamo operating by virtue of the strong differential rotation in disk galaxies. This makes the field grow exponentially with time so that only a few rotations of the galaxy are needed to make a large field out of a small one. Eventually this dynamo probably quenches when the field has an energy density comparable to the gas in the galaxy (which is roughly the situation we find in our own Galaxy).

Hopefully you now see the problem. If the field is being wound up quickly then younger galaxies (those whose light comes to us from a long way away) should have much smaller magnetic fields than nearby ones. But they don’t seem to behave in this way. A few years ago, I wrote a paper about a model in which the galactic fields weren’t produced by a dynamo but were primordial in origin and large from the start. I might dust it off and look it again…

The mystery of the origin of galactic magnetic fields remains unsolved largely because, although we know magnetism exists, it is notoriously difficult to understand its behaviour when it is coupled to all the other messy things we have to deal with in astrophysics. It’s a kind of polar opposite of dark matter, which we don’t know (for sure) exists but which only acts through gravity so its behaviour is easier to model. This is the main reason why cosmological theorists prefer to think about dark matter rather than magnetic fields. I’d hazard a guess that this is one problem that won’t be resolved soon either. Things are complicated enough already!

It is also worth considering the possibility that magnetic fields might play a role in moderating the processes by which gas turns into stars within protogalaxies. At the very least, a magnetic field generates stresses that influence the onset of collapse. Although it is by no means obvious that they provide the required missing link between dark matter haloes and stars, we now have less excuse for continuing to ignore them.

2 Responses to “What about magnetic fields?”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    You need an Mh.D. to sort this out…

  2. […] Anyway, topping the bill at the RAS was the President, Andy Fabian, whose Presidential Address was entitled Black Holes at Work. Unfortunately,  the thing that didn’t work was the data projector so we had an embarassing delay while people rushed around trying to fix it. One of the charms of the RAS is that it never seems to be quite at the forefront of  technology. Anyway, once he got going the talk was very interesting. He was short of time at the end, though, so I didn’t have time to ask the  obligatory question about magnetic fields. […]

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