Archive for globular cluster

What is a Galaxy?

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on January 19, 2011 by telescoper

An interesting little paper by Duncan Forbes and  Pavel Kroupa appeared today on the arXiv today. It asks what you would have thought was the rather basic question “What is a Galaxy?”. Like many basic questions, however, it turns out to be much  more complicated than you imagined.

Ask most people what they think a galaxy is and they’ll think of something like Andromeda (or M31), shown on the left, with its lovely spiral arms. But galaxies exist in many different types, which have quite different morphologies, dynamical properties and stellar populations.

The paper by Forbes and Kroupa lists examples of definitions from technical articles and elsewhere. The Oxford English Dictionary, for instance, gives

Any of the numerous large groups of stars and other
matter that exist in space as independent systems.

I suppose that is OK, but isn’t very  precise. How do you define “independent”, for example? Two galaxies orbiting in a binary system aren’t independent, but you would still want to count them as two galaxies rather than one. A group or cluster of galaxies is likewise not a single large galaxy, at least not by any useful definition. At the other extreme, what about a cluster of stars or even a binary star system? Why aren’t they regarded as gaaxies too? They are (or can be) gravitationally bound..

Clearly we have a particular size in mind, but even if we restrict ourselves to “galaxy-sized” objects we still have problems. Why is a globular cluster not a small galaxy while a dwarf galaxy is?

To be perfectly honest, I don’t really care very much about nomenclature. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, and a galaxy by any other name would be just as luminous. What really counts are the physical properties of the various astronomical systems we find because these are what have to be explained by astrophysicists.

Perhaps it would be better to adopt Judge Potter Stewart‘s approach. Asked to rule on an obscenity case, he wrote that hard-core pornography was difficult to define, but ” I know it when I see it”….

As a cosmologist I tend to think that there’s only one system that really counts – the Universe, and galaxies are just bits of the Universe where stars seemed to have formed and organised themselves into interesting shapes. Galaxies may be photogenic, nice showy things for impressing people, but they aren’t really in themselves all that important in the cosmic scheme of things. They’re just the Big Bang’s bits of bling.

I’m not saying that galaxies aren’t extremely useful for telling us about the Universe; they clearly are. They shed light (literally) on a great many things that we wouldn’t otherwise have any clue about. Without them we couldn’t even have begun to do cosmology, and they still provide some of the most important evidence in the ongoing investigation of the the nature of the Universe. However, I think what goes on in between the shiny bits is actually much more interesting from the point of view of fundamental physics than the shiny things themselves.

Anyway, I’m rambling again and I can hear the observational astronomers swearing at me through their screens, so let me move on to the fun bit of the paper I was discussing, which is that the authors list a number of possible definitions of a galaxy and invite readers to vote.

For your information, the options (discussed in more detail in the paper) for the minimum criteria to define a galaxy are:

  • The relaxation time is greater than the age of the Universe
  • The half-light radius is greater than 10 parsecs
  • The presence of complex stellar systems
  • The presence of dark matter
  • Hosts a satellite stellar system

I won’t comment on the grammatical inconsistency of these statements. Or perhaps I just did. I’m not sure these would have been my choices either, but there you are. There’s an option to add your own criteria anyway.

The poll can be found here.

Get voting!

UPDATE: In view of the reaction some of my comments have generated from galactic astronomers I’ve decided to add a poll of my own, so that readers of this blog can express their opinions in a completely fair and unbiased way:


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