Galaxy models in compressed halos

The last post was basically an introduction to this one, which is about the recent work of Pengfei Li. In order to test a theory, we need to establish its prior. What do we expect?

The prior for fully formed galaxies after 13 billion years of accretion and evolution is not an easy problem. The dark matter halos need to form first, with the baryonic component assembling afterwards. We know from dark matter-only structure formation simulations that the initial condition (A) of the dark matter halo should resemble an NFW halo, and from observations that the end product of baryonic assembly needs to look like a real galaxy (Z). How the universe gets from A to Z is a whole alphabet of complications.

The simplest thing we can do is ignore B-Y and combine a model galaxy with a model dark matter halo. The simplest model for a spiral galaxy is an exponential disk. True to its name, the azimuthally averaged stellar surface density falls off exponentially from a central value over some scale length. This is a tolerable approximation of the stellar disks of spiral galaxies, ignoring their central bulges and their gas content. It is an inadequate yet surprisingly decent starting point for describing gravitationally bound collections of hundreds of billions of stars with just two parameters.

So a basic galaxy model is an exponential disk in an NFW dark matter halo. This is they type of model I discussed in the last post, the kind I was considering two decades ago, and the kind of model still frequently considered. It is an obvious starting point. However, we know that this starting point is not adequate. On the baryonic side, we should model all the major mass components: bulge, disk, and gas. On the halo side, we need to understand how the initial halo depends on its assembly history and how it is modified by the formation of the luminous galaxy within it. The common approach to do all that is to run a giant cosmological simulation and watch what happens. That’s great, provided we know how to model all the essential physics. The action of gravity in an expanding universe we can compute well enough, but we do not enjoy the same ability to calculate the various non-gravitational effects of baryons.

Rather than blindly accept the outcome of simulations that have become so complicated that no one really seems to understand them, it helps to break the problem down into its basic steps. There is a lot going on, but what we’re concerned about here boils down to a tug of war between two competing effects: adiabatic compression tends to concentrate the dark matter, while feedback tends to redistribute it outwards.

Adiabatic compression refers to the response of the dark matter halo to infalling baryons. Though this name stuck, the process isn’t necessarily adiabatic, and the A-word word tends to blind people to a generic and inevitable physical process. As baryons condense into the centers of dark matter halos, the gravitational potential is non-stationary. The distribution of dark matter has to respond to this redistribution of mass: the infall of dissipating baryons drags some dark matter in with them, so we expect dark matter halos to become more centrally concentrated. The most common approach to computing this effect is to assume the process is adiabatic (hence the name). This means a gentle settling that is gradual enough to be time-reversible: you can imagine running the movie backwards, unlike a sudden, violent event like a car crash. It needn’t be rigorously adiabatic, but the compressive response of the halo is inevitable. Indeed, forming a thin, dynamically cold, well-organized rotating disk in a preferred plane – i.e., a spiral galaxy – pretty much requires a period during which the adiabatic assumption is a decent approximation. There is a history of screwing up even this much, but Jerry Sellwood showed that it could be done correctly and that when one does so, it reproduces the results of more expensive numerical simulations. This provides a method to go beyond a simple exponential disk in an NFW halo: we can compute what happens to an NFW halo in response to an observed mass distribution.

After infall and compression, baryons form stars that produce energy in the form of radiation, stellar winds, and the blast waves of supernova explosions. These are sources of energy that complicate what until now has been a straightforward calculation of gravitational dynamics. With sufficient coupling to the surrounding gas, these energy sources might be converted into enough kinetic energy to alter the equilibrium mass distribution and the corresponding gravitational potential. I say might because we don’t really know how this works, and it is a lot more complicated than I’ve made it sound. So let’s not go there, and instead just calculate the part we do know how to calculate. What happens from the inevitable adiabatic compression in the limit of zero feedback?

We have calculated this for a grid of model galaxies that matches the observed distribution or real galaxies. This is important; it often happens that people do not explore a realistic parameter space. Here is a plot of size against stellar mass:

The size of galaxy disks as measured by the exponential scale length as a function of stellar mass. Grey points are real galaxies; red circles are model galaxies with parameters chosen to cover the same parameter space. This, and all plots, from Li et al. (2022).

Note that at a given stellar mass, there is a wide range of sizes. This is an essential aspect of galaxy properties; one has to explain size variations as well as the trend with mass. This obvious point has been frequently forgotten and rediscovered in the literature.

The two parameter plot above only suffices to approximate the stellar disks of spiral and irregular galaxies. Real galaxies have bulges and interstellar gas. We include these in our models so that they cover the same distribution as real galaxies in terms of bulge mass, size, and gas fraction. We then assign a dark matter halo to each model galaxy using an abundance matching relation (the stellar mass tells us the halo mass) and adopt the cosmologically appropriate halo mass-concentration relation. These specify the initial condition of the NFW halo in which each model galaxy is presumed to reside.

At this point, it is worth remarking that there are a variety of abundance matching relations in the literature. Some of these give tragically bad predictions for the kinematics. I won’t delve into this here, but do want to note that in what follows, we have adopted the most favorable abundance matching relation, which turns out to be that of Kravstov et al. (2018). Note that this means that we are already engaged in a kind of fine-tuning by cherry-picking the most favorable relation.

Before considering adiabatic compression, let’s see what happens if we simply add our model galaxies to NFW halos. This is the same exercise we did last time with exponential disks; now we’re including bulges and gas:

Galaxy models in the RAR plane. Models are color coded by their stellar surface density. The dotted line is 1:1 (Newton with no dark matter or other funny business). The black line is the fit to the observed RAR.

This looks pretty good, at least at a first glance. Most of the models fall nearly on top of each other. This isn’t entirely true, as the most massive models overpredict the RAR. This is a generic consequence of the bend in abundance matching relations. This bend is mildest in the Kravtsov relation, which is what makes it “best” here – other relations, like the commonly cited one of Behroozi, predict a lot more high-acceleration models. One sees only a hint of that here.

The scatter is respectably small, mostly solving the problem I initially encountered in the nineties. Despite predicting a narrow relation, the models do have a finite scatter that is a bit more than we observe. This isn’t too tragic, so maybe we can work with it. These models also miss the low acceleration end of the relation by a modest but appreciable amount. This seems more significant, as we found the same thing for pure exponential models: it is hard to make this part of the problem go away.

Including bulges in the models extends them to high accelerations. This would seem to explain a region of the RAR that pure exponential models do not address. Bulges are high surface density, star dominated regions, so they fall on the 1:1 part of the RAR at high accelerations.

And then there are the hooks. These are obvious in the plot above. They occur in low and intermediate mass galaxies that lack a significant bulge component. A pure exponential disk has a peak acceleration at finite radius, but an NFW halo has its peak at zero radius. So if you imagine following a given model line inwards in radius, it goes up in acceleration until it reaches the maximum for the disk along the x-axis. The baryonic component of the acceleration then starts to decline while that due to the NFW halo continues to rise. The model doubles back to lower baryonic acceleration while continuing to higher total acceleration, making the little hook shape. This deviation from the RAR is not commonly observed; indeed, these hooks are the signature of the cusp-core problem in the RAR plane.

Results so far are mixed. With the “right” choice of abundance matching relation, we are well ahead of where we were at the turn of the century, but some real problems remain. We have yet to compute the necessary adiabatic contraction, so hopefully doing that right will result in further improvement. So let’s make a rigorous calculation of the compression that would result from forming a galaxy of the stipulated parameters.

Galaxy models in the RAR plane after compression.

Adiabatic compression makes things worse. There is a tiny improvement at low accelerations, but the most pronounced effects are at small radii where accelerations are large. Compression makes cuspy halos cuspier, making the hooks more pronounced. Worse, the strong concentration of starlight that is a bulge inevitably leads to strong compression. These models don’t approach the 1:1 line at high acceleration, and never can: higher acceleration means higher stellar surface density means greater compression. One cannot start from an NFW halo and ever reach a state of baryon domination; too much dark matter is always in the mix.

It helps to look at the residual diagram. The RAR is a log-log plot over a large dynamic range; this can hide small but significant deviations. For some reason, people who claim to explain the RAR with dark matter models never seem to show these residuals.

As above, with the observed RAR divided out. Model galaxies are mostly above the RAR. The cusp-core problem is exacerbated in disks, and bulges never reach the 1:1 line at high accelerations.

The models built to date don’t have the right shape to explain the RAR, at least when examined closely. Still, I’m pleased: what we’ve done here comes closer than all my many previous efforts, and most of the other efforts that are out there. Still, I wouldn’t claim it as a success. Indeed, the inevitable compressive effects that occur at high surface densities means that we can’t invoke simple offsets to accommodate the data: if a model gets the shape of the RAR right but the normalization wrong, it doesn’t work to simply shift it over.

So, where does that leave us? Up the proverbial creek? Perhaps. We have yet to consider feedback, which is too complicated to delve into here. Instead, while we haven’t engaged in any specific fine-tuning, we have already engaged in some cherry picking. First, we’ve abandoned the natural proportionality between halo and disk mass, replacing it with abundance matching. This is no small step, as it converts a single-valued parameter of our theory to a rolling function of mass. Abundance matching has become familiar enough that people seemed to be lulled into thinking this is natural. There is nothing natural about it. Regardless of how much fancy jargon we use to justify it, it’s still basically a rolling fudge factor – the scientific equivalent of a lipstick smothered pig.

Abundance matching does, at least, use data that are independent of the kinematics to set the relation between stellar and halo mass, and it does go in the right direction for the RAR. This only gets us into the right ballpark, and only if we cherry-pick the particular abundance matching relation that we use. So we’re well down the path of tuning whether we realize it or not. Invoking feedback is simply another step along this path.

Feedback is usually invoked in the kinematic context to convert cusps into cores. That could help with the hooks. This kind of feedback is widely thought to affect low and intermediate mass galaxies, or galaxies of a particular stellar to halo mass ratio. Opinions vary a bit, but it is generally not thought to have such a strong effect on massive galaxies. And yet, we find that we need some (second?) kind of feedback for them, as we need to move bulges back onto the 1:1 line in the RAR plane. That’s perhaps related to the cusp-core problem, but it’s also different. Getting bulges right requires a fine-tuned amount of feedback to exactly cancel out the effects of compression. A third distinct place where the models need some help is at low accelerations. This is far from the region where feedback is thought to have much effect at all.

I could go on, and perhaps will in a future post. Point is, we’ve been tuning our feedback prescriptions to match observed facts about galaxies, not computing how we think it really works. We don’t know how to do the latter, and there is no guarantee that our approximations do justice to reality. So on the one hand, I don’t doubt that with enough tinkering this process can be made to work in a model. On the other hand, I do question whether this is how the universe really works.

Galaxy models in compressed halos