I recently helped to organize a small workshop on galaxy formation at the Leiden Observatory on May 14-15, 2012, entitled "Theory Goes out on a Limb: Theoretical Predictions for z > 1 Galaxies" (Harry Ferguson of CANDELS and Marijn Franx of Leiden were co-organizers). The goal of the workshop was to feature theory more than is usual at astronomy conferences, in an effort to stimulate theoreticians to make concrete predictions about what properties of galaxies should be observed at moderate to high redshifts.
|Illustration of a spiral galaxy embedded in a dark|
matter halo, with infalling gas:
Credit: NASA; ESA; A. Feild, STScI
A new insight (for me) was that the fault can plausibly be attributed to the fact that most models take gas falling into halos of galaxies (drawn in by gravity) and rather quickly and efficiently turn it into stars. We understand this pattern of gaseous infall quite well from theory, and there is little opportunity to alter it -- it is driven by the growth of halo structure in the universe, which is well understood. But this pattern of gaseous infall is failing badly to reproduce the mass growth of galaxies. To save the theory seemingly requires major modifications to the sequence of events whereby galaxies take infalling gas and turn it into stars.
Though details are lacking, we understand in a general way the fix that is required. Essentially, we have to save up a lot of the gas early on in some kind of inert form and then turn it into stars a few billion years later. My favorite name for this solution is the "parking lot", wherein gas has to be put into a reservoir where it does nothing for some time but then becomes available for star formation after a few billion years. This latter part is the tricky thing -- it's pretty easy to drive gas out of the galaxy entirely by using energy produced by the first generation of stars in "feedback" mode. Early stars can produce a lot of energy (or momentum) to drive gas out in the form of intense radiative from young hot, stars and blastwaves from exploding supernovae. Such feedback has been known for some time. But feedback is very easily overdone -- if too intense, it can drive gas out of the galaxy entirely and render it permanently unavailable. In other words, successful feedback has to walk a narrow knife edge in which there is sufficient feedback to eject the gas and keep it ejected for some time but not so much as to lose it altogether. And then the gas has to return on just the right timescale to make stars later and match the observations.
It was my impression from the meeting that there is no generally agreed-on method to accomplish this. Without a solution to this problem, we are lacking a fundamental theory for galaxy masses, and, without a theory for masses, we cannot predict the galaxy content of the distant universe to any useful accuracy.
Perhaps a better title for the workshop would have been:
"Theory Goes Out on a Limb...and Saws It Off."