Archive for galaxies

Gas Filaments in the Cosmic Web

Posted in Astrohype, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on October 4, 2019 by telescoper

I saw that there’s a new paper that has just been published in the journal Science by Umehata et al with the title Gas filaments of the cosmic web located around active galaxies in a protocluster. In case you run into a paywall at Science, you may of course, find the paper on the arXiv here.

The abstract reads:

Cosmological simulations predict the Universe contains a network of intergalactic gas filaments, within which galaxies form and evolve. However, the faintness of any emission from these filaments has limited tests of this prediction. We report the detection of rest-frame ultraviolet Lyman-alpha radiation from multiple filaments extending more than one megaparsec between galaxies within the SSA 22 proto-cluster at a redshift of 3.1. Intense star formation and supermassive black-hole activity is occurring within the galaxies embedded in these structures, which are the likely sources of the elevated ionizing radiation powering the observed Lyman-alpha emission. Our observations map the gas in filamentary structures of the type thought to fuel the growth of galaxies and black holes in massive proto-clusters.

The existence of a complex cosmic web of filaments and voids has been known about for some time as it is revealed on large scales by the distribution of galaxies through redshift surveys:

You can see all my posts agged with `Cosmic Web’ here. There are also good theoretical reasons (besides numerical simulations) for believing this is what the large-scale distribution of matter should look like. Roughly speaking, dense knots of matter lie at the vertices of a three-dimensional pattern traced out by one-dimensional structures.

We have also known for some time, however, that there is more going on in cosmic structure than is revealed by light from stars in galaxies. In particular the way gas flows along the filaments into the knots plays an important role in galaxy and cluster formation. This paper reveals the distribution of gas around a giant cluster that has formed at such a node using observations made using the European Southern Observatory’s MUSE instrument.

Here’s a pretty picture:

I found out about this paper from a news piece in the Guardian with the title Scientists observe mysterious cosmic web directly for first time. That’s sufficiently misleading for me to cross-file the paper under `Astrohype’ because, as I explained above, we have been observing the cosmic web for decades. It is however only just becoming possible to observe the diffuse gas rather than having to join the dots between the galaxies so it is an exciting result. My complaint, I suppose, is that the word `directly’ is doing a lot of heavy lifting in the title!


50 Years of the Cosmic Web

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on November 21, 2018 by telescoper

I’ve just given a lecture on cosmology during which I showed a version of this amazing image:

The picture was created in 1977 by Seldner et al. based on the galaxy counts prepared by Charles Donald Shane and Carl Alvar Wirtanen and published in 1967 (Publ. Lick. Observatory 22, Part 1). There are no stars in the picture: it shows the  distribution of galaxies in the Northern Galactic sky. The very dense knot of galaxies seen in the centre of the image is the Coma Cluster, which lies very close to the Galactic North pole.The overall impression  is of a frothy pattern, which we now know as the Cosmic Web. I don’t think it is an unreasonable claim that the Lick galaxy catalogue provided the first convincing evidence of the form of the morphology of the large-scale structure of the Universe.

The original Shane-Wirtanen Lick galaxy catalogue lists counts of galaxies in 1 by 1 deg of arc blocks, but the actual counts were made in 10 by 10 arcmin cells. The later visualization is based on a reduction of the raw counts to obtain a catalogue with the original 10 by 10 arcmin resolution. The map above based on the corrected counts  shows the angular distribution of over 800,000 galaxies brighter than a B magnitude of approximately 19.

The distribution of galaxies is shown only in projection on the sky, and we are now able to probe the distribution in the radial direction with large-scale galaxy redshift surveys in order to obtain three-dimensional maps, but counting so many galaxy images by eye on photographic plates was a Herculean task that took many years to complete. Without such heroic endeavours in the past, our field would not have progressed anything like as quickly as it has.

I’m sorry I missed the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Lick catalogue, and Messrs Shane and Wirtanen both passed away some years ago, but at last I can doff my cap in their direction and acknowledge their immense contribution to cosmological research!

UPDATE: In response to the comments below, I have updated this scan of the original rendition of the Lick counts:

534515-112918 (2)


Why the Universe is extremely overrated.

Posted in Television, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on June 19, 2018 by telescoper

A few weeks I read an article in Physics Today which prompted me to revise and resubmit an old post I cobbled together in response to the BBC television series Wonders of the Universe in which I argued that the title of that programme suggests that the Universe is wonder-ful, or even, in a word which has cropped up in the series a few times, `awesome’.  When you think about it the Universe is not really `awesome at all’. In fact it’s extremely overrated.

Take this thing, for example:


This is an example of a galaxy (the Andromeda Nebula, M31, to be precise). We live in a similar object. Of course it looks quite pretty on the surface but, when you look at it with a physicist’s eye, such a galaxy is really not as great as it’s cracked up to be, as I shall now explain.

We live in a relatively crowded part of our galaxy on a small planet orbiting a fairly insignificant star called the Sun. Now you’ve got me started on the Sun. I know it supplies the Earth with all its energy, but it does the job pretty badly, all things considered because the Sun only radiates a fraction of a milliwatt per kilogram. By comparison a human being radiates more than one watt per kilogram. Pound for pound, that’s more than a thousand times as much energy as a star.

So,  in reality, stars are bloated, wasteful, inefficient and not even slightly awesome. They’re only noticeable because they’re big. And we all know that size shouldn’t really matter. In short, stars are extremely overrated.

But even in what purports to be an interesting neighbourhood of our Galaxy, the nearest star is 4.5 light years from the Sun. To get that in perspective, imagine the Sun is the size of a golfball. On the same scale, where is the nearest star?

The answer to that will probably surprise you, as it does my students when I give this example in lectures. The answer is, in fact, on the order of a thousand kilometres away. That’s the distance from Cardiff to, say, Munich. What a dull landscape our Galaxy possesses. In between one little golf ball in Wales and another one in Germany there’s nothing of any interest at all, just a featureless incomprehensible void not worthy of the most perfunctory second thought.

So galaxies aren’t dazzlingly beautiful jewels of the heavens. They’re flimsy, insubstantial things more like the cheap tat you can find on QVC. What’s worse is that they’re also full of a grubby mixture of soot and dust. Indeed, some are so filthy that you can hardly see any stars at all. Somebody needs to give the Universe a good clean. I suppose you just can’t get the help these days.

And then to the Physics Today piece I mentioned at the start of this article. I quote:

Star formation is stupendously inefficient. Take the Milky Way. Our galaxy contains about a billion solar masses of fresh gas available to form stars—and yet it produces only one solar mass of new stars a year.

Hopeless! What a waste of space a galaxy is! As well as being oversized, vacuous and rather dirty, one is also pretty useless at making the very things it is supposed to be good at! What galaxies clearly need is some sort of a productivity drive or perhaps a complete redesign using more efficient technology.

So stars are overrated and galaxies are overrated, but surely the Universe as a whole is impressive?

No. Think about the Big Bang. Well, I don’t need to go on about that because I’ve already posted about it. Suffice to say that the Big Bang wasn’t anywhere near as Big as you’ve been led to believe: the volume was between about 115 and 120 decibels. Quite loud, to be sure, but many rock concerts are louder. To be honest it’s a bit of an anti-climax. If I’d been in charge (and given sufficient funding) I would have put on something much more spectacular.

In any case the Big Bang happened a very long time ago. Since then the Universe has been expanding, the space between galaxies getting emptier and emptier so there’s now less than one atom per cubic metre, and cooling down to the point where its temperature is lower than three degrees above absolute zero.

The Universe is a cold, desolate and very empty place, lit by a few feeble stars and warmed only by the fading glow of the heat left over from when it was all so much younger and more exciting. Here and there amid the cosmic void a few galaxies are dotted about, like cheap and rather tatty ornaments. It’s as if we inhabit a shabby downmarket retirement home, warmed only by the feeble radiation given off by a puny electric fire as we occupy ourselves as best we can until Armageddon comes.

In my opinion the Universe would have worked out better had it been entirely empty, instead of being contaminated with such detritus. I agree with Tennessee Williams:

BRICK: “Well, they say nature hates a vacuum, Big Daddy.
BIG DADDY: “That’s what they say, but sometimes I think that a vacuum is a hell of a lot better than some of the stuff that nature replaces it with.”

So no, the Universe isn’t wonderful. Not at all. In fact, it’s basically a bit rubbish. Again, it’s only superficially impressive because it’s quite large, and it doesn’t do to be impressed by things just because they are large. That would be vulgar.

Digression: I just remembered a story about a loudmouthed Texan who owned a big ranch and who was visiting the English countryside on holiday. Chatting to locals in the village pub he boasted that it took him several days to drive around his ranch. A farmer replied “Yes. I used to have a car like that.”

Ultimately, however, the fact is that whatever we think about the Universe and how badly constructed it it, we’re stuck with it. Just like the trains, the government and the weather. There’s nothing we can do about it, so we might as grin and bear it.

It’s being so cheerful that helps keep me going.


The Dipole Repeller

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on February 2, 2017 by telescoper

An interesting bit of local cosmology news has been hitting the headlines over the last few days. The story relates to a paper by Yehuda Hoffman et al. published in Nature Astronomy on 30th January. The abstract reads:

Our Local Group of galaxies is moving with respect to the cosmic microwave background (CMB) with a velocity 1 of VCMB = 631 ± 20 km s−1and participates in a bulk flow that extends out to distances of ~20,000 km s−1 or more 2,3,4 . There has been an implicit assumption that overabundances of galaxies induce the Local Group motion 5,6,7 . Yet underdense regions push as much as overdensities attract 8 , but they are deficient in light and consequently difficult to chart. It was suggested a decade ago that an underdensity in the northern hemisphere roughly 15,000 km s−1 away contributes significantly to the observed flow 9 . We show here that repulsion from an underdensity is important and that the dominant influences causing the observed flow are a single attractor — associated with the Shapley concentration — and a single previously unidentified repeller, which contribute roughly equally to the CMB dipole. The bulk flow is closely anti-aligned with the repeller out to 16,000 ± 4,500 km s−1. This ‘dipole repeller’ is predicted to be associated with a void in the distribution of galaxies.

The effect of this “void in the distribution of galaxies” has been described in rather lurid terms as “Milky Way being pushed through space by cosmic dead zone” in a Guardian piece on this research.

If you’re confused by this into thinking that some sort of anti-gravity is at play, then it isn’t really anything so exotic. If the Universe were completely homogeneous and isotropic – as our simplest models assume – then it would be expanding at the same rate in all directions.  This would be a pure “Hubble flow“, with galaxies appearing to recede from an observer with a speed proportional to their distance:


But the Universe isn’t exactly smooth. As well as the galaxies themselves, there are clusters, filaments and sheets of galaxies and a corresponding collection of void regions, together forming a huge and complex “cosmic web” of large-scale structure. This distorts the Hubble flow by inducing peculiar motions (i.e. departures from the pure expansion). A part of the Universe which is denser than average (e.g. a cluster or supercluster) expands less  quickly than average, a part which is less dense (i.e. a void) expands more quickly than average. Relative to the global expansion rate, clusters represent a “pull” and voids represent a “push”. That’s really all there is to it.

The difficult part about this kind of study is measuring a sufficient number of peculiar motions of galaxies around our own to make a detailed map of what’s going on in the local velocity field. That’s particularly hard for galaxies near the plane of the Milky Way disk as they tend to be obscured by dust. Nevertheless, after plugging away at this for many years, the authors of the Nature paper have generated some fascinating results. It seems that our Galaxy and other members of the Local Group lie between a dense supercluster (often called the Shapley concentration) and an underdense region, so the peculiar velocity field around us has an approximately dipole structure.

They’ve even made a nice video to show you what’s going on, so I don’t have to explain any further!



A Universe of Two Trillion Galaxies

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on October 13, 2016 by telescoper

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.


The Importance of Being Homogeneous

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , on August 29, 2012 by telescoper

A recent article in New Scientist reminded me that I never completed the story I started with a couple of earlier posts (here and there), so while I wait for the rain to stop I thought I’d make myself useful by posting something now. It’s all about a paper available on the arXiv by Scrimgeour et al. concerning the transition to homogeneity of galaxy clustering in the WiggleZ galaxy survey, the abstract of which reads:

We have made the largest-volume measurement to date of the transition to large-scale homogeneity in the distribution of galaxies. We use the WiggleZ survey, a spectroscopic survey of over 200,000 blue galaxies in a cosmic volume of ~1 (Gpc/h)^3. A new method of defining the ‘homogeneity scale’ is presented, which is more robust than methods previously used in the literature, and which can be easily compared between different surveys. Due to the large cosmic depth of WiggleZ (up to z=1) we are able to make the first measurement of the transition to homogeneity over a range of cosmic epochs. The mean number of galaxies N(<r) in spheres of comoving radius r is proportional to r^3 within 1%, or equivalently the fractal dimension of the sample is within 1% of D_2=3, at radii larger than 71 \pm 8 Mpc/h at z~0.2, 70 \pm 5 Mpc/h at z~0.4, 81 \pm 5 Mpc/h at z~0.6, and 75 \pm 4 Mpc/h at z~0.8. We demonstrate the robustness of our results against selection function effects, using a LCDM N-body simulation and a suite of inhomogeneous fractal distributions. The results are in excellent agreement with both the LCDM N-body simulation and an analytical LCDM prediction. We can exclude a fractal distribution with fractal dimension below D_2=2.97 on scales from ~80 Mpc/h up to the largest scales probed by our measurement, ~300 Mpc/h, at 99.99% confidence.

To paraphrase, the conclusion of this study is that while galaxies are strongly clustered on small scales – in a complex `cosmic web’ of clumps, knots, sheets and filaments –  on sufficiently large scales, the Universe appears to be smooth. This is much like a bowl of porridge which contains many lumps, but (usually) none as large as the bowl it’s put in.

Our standard cosmological model is based on the Cosmological Principle, which asserts that the Universe is, in a broad-brush sense, homogeneous (is the same in every place) and isotropic (looks the same in all directions). But the question that has troubled cosmologists for many years is what is meant by large scales? How broad does the broad brush have to be?

I blogged some time ago about that the idea that the  Universe might have structure on all scales, as would be the case if it were described in terms of a fractal set characterized by a fractal dimension D. In a fractal set, the mean number of neighbours of a given galaxy within a spherical volume of radius R is proportional to R^D. If galaxies are distributed uniformly (homogeneously) then D = 3, as the number of neighbours simply depends on the volume of the sphere, i.e. as R^3, and the average number-density of galaxies. A value of D < 3 indicates that the galaxies do not fill space in a homogeneous fashion: D = 1, for example, would indicate that galaxies were distributed in roughly linear structures (filaments); the mass of material distributed along a filament enclosed within a sphere grows linear with the radius of the sphere, i.e. as R^1, not as its volume; galaxies distributed in sheets would have D=2, and so on.

We know that D \simeq 1.2 on small scales (in cosmological terms, still several Megaparsecs), but the evidence for a turnover to D=3 has not been so strong, at least not until recently. It’s just just that measuring D from a survey is actually rather tricky, but also that when we cosmologists adopt the Cosmological Principle we apply it not to the distribution of galaxies in space, but to space itself. We assume that space is homogeneous so that its geometry can be described by the Friedmann-Lemaitre-Robertson-Walker metric.

According to Einstein’s  theory of general relativity, clumps in the matter distribution would cause distortions in the metric which are roughly related to fluctuations in the Newtonian gravitational potential \delta\Phi by \delta\Phi/c^2 \sim \left(\lambda/ct \right)^{2} \left(\delta \rho/\rho\right), give or take a factor of a few, so that a large fluctuation in the density of matter wouldn’t necessarily cause a large fluctuation of the metric unless it were on a scale \lambda reasonably large relative to the cosmological horizon \sim ct. Galaxies correspond to a large \delta \rho/\rho \sim 10^6 but don’t violate the Cosmological Principle because they are too small in scale \lambda to perturb the background metric significantly.

The discussion of a fractal universe is one I’m overdue to return to. In my previous post  I left the story as it stood about 15 years ago, and there have been numerous developments since then, not all of them consistent with each other. I will do a full “Part 2” to that post eventually, but in the mean time I’ll just comment that this particularly one does seem to be consistent with a Universe that possesses the property of large-scale homogeneity. If that conclusion survives the next generation of even larger galaxy redshift surveys then it will come as an immense relief to cosmologists.

The reason for that is that the equations of general relativity are very hard to solve in cases where there isn’t a lot of symmetry; there are just too many equations to solve for a general solution to be obtained.  If the cosmological principle applies, however, the equations simplify enormously (both in number and form) and we can get results we can work with on the back of an envelope. Small fluctuations about the smooth background solution can be handled (approximately but robustly) using a technique called perturbation theory. If the fluctuations are large, however, these methods don’t work. What we need to do instead is construct exact inhomogeneous model, and that is very very hard. It’s of course a different question as to why the Universe is so smooth on large scales, but as a working cosmologist the real importance of it being that way is that it makes our job so much easier than it would otherwise be.

P.S. And I might add that the importance of the Scrimgeour et al paper to me personally is greatly amplified by the fact that it cites a number of my own articles on this theme!

Galaxies from the Past

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on January 27, 2012 by telescoper

If you were wondering where I got yesterday’s piece from, the answer is that I fired up my old laptop and found it among a lot of old papers there. And by “old laptop”, I mean really old laptop: I bought it in 1995! Anyway, since I haven’t got time to write anything today here is another piece I wrote a long time ago but have only recently unearthed. This one is about Galaxies. It’s a lot longer than yesterday’s effort, but like that one I can’t remember what it was for. Still, some of you might find it interesting. The piece ends with a reference to galaxies observed as they were in the distant past, rather like the article itself!


A galaxy is a collection of stars, held together by their mutual gravitational attraction and orbiting around their common centre.  Galaxies range in size from dwarf systems of perhaps a few million stars, to giants containing up to a thousand billion. The Sun and all the stars visible in the night sky to the naked eye belong to one such galaxy, our own Galaxy the Milky Way. Although principally recognized through the light given off by their component stars, galaxies also contain other material such as clouds of gas and dust, and significant quantities of dark matter whose nature is not yet understood.

Only stars inside our Galaxy can be resolved with the naked eye; these stars have been studied and catalogued since antiquity. Ancient astronomers  also knew of the existence of a diffuse band of light crossing the sky they could not resolve into individual stars; we now call this the Milky Way. The word galaxy is derived from the Greek galaktos, meaning “milk”. The existence of galaxies other than our own is a much more recent discovery. While even relatively nearby stars appear as point sources of light, the light from other galaxies appears as cloudy and diffuse much like small fragments of the Milky Way. The generic term for a such sources is nebula, the latin word for “mist”.

A Persian astronomer, al-Sufi, in the 10th century AD described such a faint patch of light in the constellation Andromeda which is now known to be another galaxy, but it was only in the 18th Century that a systematic catalogue of  nebulae was compiled, by the French astronomer Charles Messier. Not all the objects he found were other galaxies – some were clouds of dust and gas inside our own – but the Messier catalogue contained 32 objects that we now know to be galaxies, including al-Sufi’s object, which was number 31 in his list. The Andromeda nebula is known to this day as M31. With the increasing power of astronomical telescopes, the list of known nebulae grew to thousands even before the use of astronomical photography became widespread. William and Caroline Herschel and, later, their son John played a leading role in identifying and cataloguing such objects in the early 19th century.

While the existence of large numbers of these nebulae was well established by the start of the 20th Century, their nature remained controversial. Since their distances could not be directly measured, it was possible that they could be inside our own galaxy. Many astronomers believed that the spiral structure seen in some of them, for example M31, suggested that they represented the formative stages of planetary systems like our own Solar System inside the Milky Way. Others argued that the nebulae were very much more distant than that, and were “island universes” on a much larger scale. This debate was only resolved in the 1920s, when Edwin Hubble was able to measure the distances to some nebulae using variable stars called Cepheids. He found them to be far too distant to be inside the Milky Way. This discovery established galaxies as the basic building-blocks of the Universe and gave rise to the field of extragalactic astronomy. Astronomers now estimate that there are as many galaxies in our observable Universe as there are individual stars in our own galaxy, i.e. around a hundred billion.

Galaxies come in a rich variety of shapes and sizes, but there are three basic types: Galaxies come in three basic types: spiral (or disk), elliptical and irregular. Hubble proposed a morphological classification, or taxonomy, for galaxies in which he envisaged the three basic types (spiral, elliptical and irregular) as forming a sequence which in the past was often assumed to represent various evolutionary stages of a galaxy . Although it is now not thought the interpretation as an evolutionary sequence is correct, Hubble’s nomenclature is still commonly used.

Spiral galaxies account for more than half the galaxies observed  in our neighbourhood.  These contain a bright central nucleus surrounded by a flattened disk that sometimes contains beautiful spiral arms. Hubble divided these galaxies into classes labelled as normal (S) or barred (SB) depending on whether the prominent spiral arms emerge directly the nucleus, or originate at the ends of a luminous bar projecting symmetrically through it . Spirals often contain copious amounts of dust, and the spiral arms containing many young stars givin them a noticeably blue colour.  The normal and barred spirals S and SB are further subdivided into a, b or c depending on how tightly the spiral arms are wound up.

The elliptical galaxies (E), which account for only around 10% of observed bright galaxies, are elliptical in shape and have no discernible spiral structure. They are usually red in colour, have very little dust and show no signs of active star formation. The further classification of elliptical galaxies into En depends on the degree of elongation of the galaxy: E0 is nearly spherical; E7 is cigar-shaped. Ellipticals tend to occur in regions of space where there are many other galaxies, giving rise to the idea that they might originally have been spiral galaxies but have lost their spiral structure through mergers or interactions with other galaxies.

The shapes and colours of elliptical galaxies resemble the corresponding properties of spiral nuclei. Elliptical galaxies cover a broad range in mass, from a few hundred thousand to a thousand billion times the mass of the Sun. Spiral galaxies seem to have a smaller spread in mass, typically weighing in at about a hundred billion times the mass of the Sun.

Lenticular, or S0 galaxies, were added later by Hubble to bridge the gap between normal spirals and ellipticals. Around 20% of galaxies we see have this morphology. They are more elongated than elliptical galaxies but have neither bars nor spiral structure.

Irregular galaxies have no apparent structure. They are relatively rare, and are often faint and small so are consequently very hard to see. Their irregularity may stem from the fact that they are have such small masses that the material within them is relatively loosely bound and may have been disturbed by the environment in which they sit.

The classification of galaxies proposed by Hubble applies to “normal” galaxies whose light output is dominated by radiation their constituent population of stars. Stars predominantly emit visible light, which occupies a relatively narrow part of the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation. Spiral galaxies also contain dust which is heated by starlight and radiates in the infra-red. Active galaxies are characterized by the prodigious amounts of energy they emit in regions of the spectrum normal galaxies cannot reach, particularly in radio and X-rays. Much of the energy broadcast by active galaxies is associated with the relatively small nucleus of the galaxy, so the term Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN) is often used to describe these regions. Sometimes the central nucleus is accompanied by a jet of material being ejected at high velocity into the surrounding intergalactic medium. The different types of active galaxy include Seyfert galaxies, radio galaxies, BL Lac objects, and quasars.

Seyfert galaxies are usually spiral galaxies with no radio emission and no evidence of jets. They do, however, emit radiation over a continuous range of frequencies from infra-red to X-rays. Splitting their optical light up into its characteristic spectrum reveals the presence of strong and variable emission lines.  One can see such lines in ordinary stellar spectra and consequently in the spectra of normal galaxies, but they are much more prominent in active galaxies. Radio galaxies, on the other hand, are more commonly elliptical galaxies. These objects are extremely dramatic in their appearance, frequently having two lobes of  radio-emitting material extending far away from the central compact nucleus. There is also sometimes the appearance of a jet of material, extending from the core into the radio lobes. It appears that material is ejected from the nucleus along the jet, eventually being slowed  down by its interaction with the intergalactic medium and forming the radio lobes. The central parts of radio galaxies seem to have properties similar to those of Seyfert galaxies.

BL Lac objects have spectra with no emission lines, but they emit strongly in all wavebands from radio to X-ray frequencies. Their main characteristic, however, is their extremely strong and rapid variability. It is thought that a possible explanation for these objects is that the observer is seeing a jet of material travelling head-on at close to the velocity of light.

The first quasars to be found were detected by their strong radio emission, but they were found to be so small that, like stars but unlike other galaxies, they could not be resolved with optical telescopes. For this reason they became known as quasi-stellar radio sources, or quasars for short. Later on, other such objects were found which did not emit radio waves at all, so the name was changed to quasi-stellar object or QSO, but the name quasar has in any case stuck. It seems that only one in about two hundred quasars is actually radio-loud, but the quasars are still the most powerful of all the active galaxy types.

These different kinds of objects were discovered at different times by different people and were originally thought to be entirely different phenomena. Now, however, there is a unified model in which these structures are all interpreted as having basically similar structure but a different orientation to the observer’s line-of-sight. The engine which powers the activity is thought to be a supermassive black hole, with a mass up to about 100 million solar masses. This seems very large, but is actually just a small fraction of the mass of the host galaxy, which may be a thousand times larger. Material surrounding the black hole is attracted towards it and undergoes a process of accretion, gradually spiralling in and being swallowed. As it spirals in, it forms an accretion disk around the black hole. This disk can be very hot, producing the X-ray radiation frequently seen in AGN, but its presence prevents radiation being transmitted through it. Radiation tends therefore to be beamed out of the poles of the nucleus and does not appear from the equatorial regions which are obscured by the disk. When the beamed radiation interacts with material inside the host galaxy or in the surrounding medium, it forms jets or radio lobes. Depending on the thickness of the disk, the size of the `host’ galaxy ,the amount of gas and dust surrounding the nucleus and the orientation at which the whole system is viewed one can, at least qualitatively, account for the variety of properties listed above.

It is not known what fraction of normal galaxies undergoes activity at some stage in their careers. Although active galaxies are relatively uncommon in our neighbourhood, this may simply be because the active phase lasts for a very short time compared to the total life of a galaxy. For example, if activity only lasts only one-thousandth of the total lifetime, we would expect only to see one in a thousand galaxies at any one time displaying the symptoms. It is perfectly possible, therefore, that the kind of extreme activity displayed by these galaxies is merely a phase through which all galaxies pass. If so, this would suggest that all galaxies should possess a massive black hole at their centre, which is no longer powering an accretion disk because there is insufficient gas left in the surrounding regions. Recent studies using the ultra-high resolution available on the Hubble Space Telescope suggest that most normal galaxies may indeed have black holes in their centres.

A somewhat milder form of activity is displayed by starburst galaxies which, as their name suggests are galaxies undergoing a vigorous period of star formation. Such activity is not thought to involve an active galactic nucleus, but is probably triggered by a tidal interaction between two galaxies moving closely past each other.

The stars in a galaxy exert gravitational forces on each other. This not only holds the galaxy together, it also causes the stars to move. The internal dynamical properties of galaxies are extremely important because they allow astronomers to work out how much matter is there.

In spiral galaxies, the component stars orbit roughly in a plane about the central nucleus. It is this bulk rotation that is responsible for the flattened shape of these systems. Much the same state of affairs applies in the Solar System, with all the planets moving in roughly circular orbits about the Sun. In the case of a disk galaxy that lies edge-on to the observer, stars on one side will be approaching while those on the other will be receding. These motions cause a Doppler shift in the light from different parts of the disk: one side will have a spectrum that is shifted towards blue colours, while the other side will be shifted to the red. One can therefore use spectroscopic methods to plot a graph showing how the rotation speed of material  varies with distance from the centre of rotation. Such a curve is called a rotation curve.  These curves show that the matter in spiral galaxies has a roughly constant velocity out to tens of thousands of light years from the centre. This is surprising because the planets of the Solar System have orbital speeds that fall off quite rapidly with distance from the Sun. Most of the mass of the Solar System lies in the Sun, which is near the centre of motion. Most of the light produced in a galaxy is likewise produced in the central regions. If all the mass in a galaxy were where the stars are, i.e. in the middle, the rotation speed should fall off the further out from the centre one looked. The simplest interpretation of this strange behaviour is that galaxies contain a large amount of material that does not produce starlight and which is not as concentrated in the centre of the galaxy as the stars. To make this work requires galaxies to be embedded in a diffuse halo of dark matter that is about ten times as large as the luminous part of the disk and containing perhaps ten times as much matter.

Dynamical studies of elliptical galaxies are more complicated because the stellar motions within them are not those of simple rotation. Nevertheless, these objects too reveal evidence for dark matter in similar quantity to that in spiral galaxies.

It is thought that less than 10 per cent of the total mass of a galaxy is in visible stars, but the form of the mysterious dark matter is not at all understood. The best candidate at the moment is some form of exotic particle left over from the Big Bang, usually called a WIMP (Weakly Interacting Massive Particle), although no such particle has yet been directly detected.

Galaxies are the basic building blocks of the Universe. They are not, however, the largest structures one can see. They tend not to be isolated, but cluster together. The distribution of nebulae on the sky was thought to be non-uniform even in the days of the Herschels, but it is only in the 20th century that it has become possible to map their three-dimensional positions in a systematic fashion.

The technique used to explore the large-scale distribution of galaxies is based on the discovery of the expanding universe usually attributed to Edwin Hubble, who built  on earlier work by Vesto Slipher. Slipher had discovered that lines in the optical spectra of galaxies were systematically shifted towards the longer wavelength, red end of the electromagnetic spectrum. Hubble extended this study by looking at these redshifts in tandem with the distances he had estimated for the galaxies. He found, to his surprise, that the redshift of a galaxy came out to be proportional to its distance. Contrary to popular belief, Hubble never really interpreted this himself as the result of cosmic expansion but the empirical correlation between redshift and distance now known as Hubble’s Law is the cornerstone of the big-bang cosmology. It is now accepted that the redshift of the galaxies arises from their motion away from the observer, similar to the Doppler shift that causes a change of pitch in a receding police siren. While the accurate determination of extragalactic distances remains difficult, measuring redshifts is rather straightforward. Hubble’s law has been used to chart the pattern traced out by millions of individual galaxies from their spectral shifts.

The general term used to describe a physical  aggregation of many galaxies is a cluster of galaxies, or galaxy cluster. Clusters can be systems of greatly varying size and richness. Our galaxy, the Milky Way,  is a member of the Local Group of galaxies which is a rather small cluster of galaxies of which the only other large member is the Andromeda galaxy (M31). On the other extreme, there are the so-called rich clusters of galaxies, also known as Abell clusters, which contain many hundreds or even thousands of galaxies in a region just few million light years across: prominent nearby examples of such entities are the Virgo and Coma clusters. In between these two extremes, galaxies appear to be distributed in systems of varying density.

Individual galaxy clusters are not the largest structures in the Universe. The distribution of galaxies on scales larger than around 30 million light years also reveals a wealth of complexity. Galaxies are not simply distributed in blobs, like the Abell clusters, but often lie in extended linear structures called filaments, such as the Perseus-Pisces chain, or flattened sheet-like structures like the Great Wall. The latter object is roughly two-dimensional concentration of galaxies, discovered in 1988 by astronomers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. This structure is at least 200 million light years by 600 million light years in size, but is less than 20 million light years thick. It contains many thousands of galaxies and has a mass of at least 1016 solar masses.  The interconnecting network of filaments and sheets is aptly called the “cosmic web”, with rich clusters appearing where the parts of the web join together.

Rich clusters are clustered into enormous loosely-bound agglomerations called superclusters, containing anything from around ten rich clusters to more than 50. The most prominent known supercluster is called the Shapley concentration, while the most nearby is the Local Supercluster, a flattened structure in the plane of which the Local Group is moving. Superclustering is known to exist on scales up to 300 million light years, and superclusters may contain as much as 1017 solar masses of material or more.

These overdense structures are complemented by vast underdense regions known as voids, many of which appear to be roughly spherical.  These regions containing very many fewer galaxies than average, or even no galaxies at all. Voids with density less than 10% of the average density on scales of up to 200 million light years have been found in large-scale redshift surveys.

The existence of galaxies, clusters of galaxies and the overall complexity of large-scale structure in the Universe around us must be contrasted with the extreme simplicity of the very early Universe. Observations of the cosmic microwave background, relic radiation left over from the early stages of the Big Bang, suggest that the initial state of the Universe was almost featureless, with variations in density from place to place of less than one part in a hundred thousand.

The process that is thought to have transformed these smooth beginnings into the clumpiness we see today is called gravitational instability. If the universe were initially exactly smooth, it would have remained so as it expanded and cooled. But if there were small initial variations in density, these would become amplified. A small patch of the Universe that was more dense than average would exert a slightly greater gravitational pull on its surroundings than an average patch. This would cause material to flow in, making it even denser. This, in turn, would make it pull even more than average. This starts a runaway process by which small initial ripples can turn into dense clumps.

This basic idea has been around since it was first suggested by Sir James Jeans more than a hundred years ago, but it is only in the last ten years or so that a convincing picture has been put together explaining how it works in the expanding Universe. According the modern theories, most of the matter in the Universe is in the form of exotic particles left over from the primordial fireball phase that was the Big Bang. These particles are thought to be very slow-moving and are consequently called Cold Dark Matter (CDM). These particles cluster together via the process of gravitational instability, first forming small objects with the mass of a very small dwarf galaxy (around one hundred thousand solar masses). These small seed objects then progressively merge into larger objects in a hierarchical fashion, eventually forming galaxy-sized and cluster-sized dark matter clumps. These form gravitational wells into which gaseous matter falls and becomes trapped. Stars  form as gas clouds cool and fragment in the dark matter clumps. All this happens within a continuous sequence of interaction, disruption and merging. The whole process is extremely complicated, but extensive computer simulations show that the structure produced is very similar to the cosmic web revealed by observations, at least in the essential details.

Further support for these theoretical ideas is provided by observations of galaxies so distant that it has taken their light a large fraction of the age of the Universe to reach us. Looking at such objects allows astronomers to see galaxies in the process of formation.