Intermezzo for Rubber Ruler

¡Dios mio!  Vera Rubin confirms that galaxies cluster and no-one thinks that’s important?”

“That was in the 1950s, Maria.  Her report was just a degree thesis and a minor paper.  Her advisor, who should have pushed her case but didn’t, was a cosmologist instead of an observational astronomer.  At the time, many considered cosmology to be just barely not metaphysics.  What she reported didn’t bear on what the astronomers of the day considered the Big Questions, like how do stars work and is the expansion of the Universe accelerating.”

“That’s political, ¿no?

“That’s part of how science works — if observations  look important, other people work to invalidate them.  If results look important, other people work to rebut them.  The claims that are validated and can’t be rebutted survive.  But the verifiers and rebutters only work on what their colleagues consider to be important.  Deciding what’s important is a political process.  The history of science is littered with claims that everyone dismissed as unimportant until decades later when they suddenly gained the spotlight.  Galaxy clustering is one of those cases.  All things considered, I think clustering’s initial obscurity had more to do with the current state of the science than with her being a woman.”

“So how did Vera Rubin react to the nada?”

“She went back to her observing, which is what she was happiest doing anyway.  Especially when computers came along and her long-time colleague Kent Ford built a spiffy electronic spectrograph.  No more gear-calculating all day for a single number, no more peering down that measuring engine microscope tube.  Results came more quickly and she could look at larger assemblies out there in the Universe.  Which led to her next breakthrough.”

Rubin inspecting metagalaxy
“Dark matter, yes?”

“No, that came later.  This one was about streams.”

“Of water?”

“Of galaxies.  At the time, most astronomers thought that galaxy motion was a solved problem.  You know about Hubble Flow?”

“No.  Is that the streaming?”

“It’s the background for streaming.  Hubble Flow is the overall expansion of the Universe, all the galaxies moving away from each other.  But it’s not uniform motion.  We know, for instance, that the Andromeda and Milky Way galaxies are going to collide in about five billion years.  Think of galaxies like gas molecules in an expanding balloon.  On the average every molecule gets further away from its neighbors, but if you watched an individual molecule you’d see it bouncing back and forth.  Astronomers call that extra movement ‘peculiar motion.'”

“‘Peculiar’ like ‘odd?'”

“It’s an old-fashioned use of the word — ‘peculiar’ like ‘distinctive’ or ‘unique.’  Anyway, the community’s general notion was you could account for galaxy movement as a simple random motion laid on top of the Hubble Flow.”

“Again Occam’s Razor cuts too close?”

“For sure.  Rubin and Ford looked at data for almost a hundred distant galaxies all over the sky.  Not just any galaxies.  They carefully picked a set of one kind of galaxy, known in the trade as ScI, all of which have about the same ratio of absolute brightness to diameter.  Measure the diameter, you get the absolute brightness.  A distant light appears dimmer as the square of its distance.  Measure the brightness we see on Earth, make a few corrections, and the inverse square law lets you calculate how far the galaxy is from here.  Then Hubble’s distance-speed law tells you how fast you expect the galaxy to be receding.  That’s half of it.”

“OK…?”

“The other half is how fast the galaxies are really moving.  For that Rubin and Ford turned to spectroscopy.  From the red/blue-shift of each galaxy they had an independent measure of its speed relative to us.  Guess what?  They didn’t match the Hubble Flow speeds.”

Galactic velocity anisotropy
Adapted from
Astronomical Journal 81, 719-37 (1976).

“Faster or slower?”

“Both!  In one half the sky these distant galaxies appear to be fleeing faster than the Hubble Flow, and in the other half they’re going slower.  The simplest explanation is that our entire Local Group is streaming towards the ‘slowest’ part of the sky.  Rubin and company had discovered a large-scale, third kind of galactic motion — rivers of galaxies streaming through the Universe.”

“Did the people get excited?”

“Not for a while, of course.”

~~ Rich Olcott

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