Galaxy Zoo Multi Mergers
Our latest merger paper is called “Galaxy Zoo: Multi-Mergers and the Millennium Simulation.” We used the original catalogue of 3003 mergers from the previous mergers study to find the interesting subset of systems with three or more galaxies merging in a near-simultaneous manner. We found 39 such multi-mergers (which you can see in the image below) and from this we estimated the relative abundance of such multi-mergers as being ~2% the number of binary mergers (which were themselves ~3% the number of isolated ‘normal’ galaxies). We also examined the properties of these galaxies (colour, stellar mass and environment) and compared them to the properties of galaxies in isolated and binary-merger galaxies; we found that galaxies in multi-mergers tend to be more like elliptical galaxies on average: they’re large, red and in denser environments.
Describing what we see in the world is all well and good, but the equally important thing in science is to compare what we see with what others have claimed to see or to have predicted through theory. Since ours is effectively the first such catalogue of multi mergers, there simply are no other observational sets to compare to. We therefore compared these merger fractions and galaxy properties to a large and well-known simulation called the Millennium Run. This is a cosmic scale simulation of Dark Matter that starts off smoothly distributed (similar to the CMB) within a 500 Mpc box and, over time, clumps together to form structures. Now, galaxies are of course made out of normal matter, so to model how galaxies form and evolve within the Dark Matter, one can take the resulting clumps of Dark Matter from the simulation and, using sensible sounding rules (e.g. bigger Dark Matter clumps get more normal matter because they’ll gravitationally attract more), come up with predictions for numbers of stars formed within the simulation (and where, when, etc.). This means that one can create (with enough fiddling) predictions of what galaxies will look like in such a Dark Matter dominated Universe. These are called ‘Semi-Analytic Models’ and are an important strategy for simulating the Universe since computers would struggle to compute the many many additional interactions between particles in a full N-Body simulation with both Dark Matter and normal matter (Dark Matter is relatively easy since it only feels the 1/r^2 force of gravity).
So what we did in the paper was to compare the results of our multi-merger galaxies to those of the Semi-Analytic Models in the Millennium Simulation (double ‘n’ because it’s a largely German initiative). This is a good test of the Semi Analytic Models because there is no way they could have been fiddled to get the right answer because ours is the first such observational constraint on what multi-mergers look like. And what we found is that the Simulation did rather well – it predicted the relative abundance of multi-mergers to within a few percent and it predicted that galaxies in these systems should have properties more like a typical elliptical rather than a typical spiral. This gives us independent confidence that these Simulations are on the right track and that the assumptions that went into them are sensible ways to get at how the Universe behaves.
In the future, the Galaxy Zoo interface might well allow users to indicate the presence of multi-mergers!
Many thanks to you all for your help in making this interesting study happen.