I just saw a press-release that describes a paper, just out, authored by Chris Conselice et al from the University of Nottingham (in the Midlands), with this here abstract:
The key conclusion of this paper is that when the universe was only a few billion years old there were about ten times as many galaxies in a given volume of space as there are within a similar volume today, but most of these galaxies were much lower mass systems than, e.g., the Milky Way. In fact their masses are similar to those of the satellite galaxies surrounding the Milky Way. These objects are numerous but so faint that even in very deep surveys with very big telescopes they are very easy to miss.
Here’s an image from a deep survey: this is from the Hubble Space Telescoper Great Observatories Deep Survey (HST-GOODS).
You can click on this to make it larger if you wish. This is typical of a “pencil beam” survey. It opens a very small window on the heavens – about a millionth of its total area of the sky – in a direction chosen to avoid having too many bright stars from our own Galaxy getting in the way. When you look at such a patch with a big telescope for a long time, what you see is basically all galaxies. The few stars in the above image can be identified by the diffraction patterns they produce, but almost every fuzzy blob in the picture is a galaxy. It looks like there are a lot of galaxies in this image, but the real number seems to be substantially higher than we thought.
When I’ve given popular talks about this kind of thing I’ve always said something like “There are at least as many galaxies in the observable Universe as there are stars in our own Galaxy”. It turns out that I was wise to include the “at least as”. There are about 100 billion (1011) stars in the Milky Way, but the latest estimate is now that there are two trillion (2 ×1012) galaxies in the observable Universe. I quote Douglas Adams:
“The Universe, as has been observed before, is an unsettlingly big place, a fact which for the sake of a quiet life most people tend to ignore. Many would happily move to somewhere rather smaller of their own devising, and this is what most beings in fact do.
I believe this explains a lot about modern politics.