Ask Ethan: Why Aren't Spiral Galaxies More Wound Up? (Synopsis)

"The farther we peer into space, the more we realize that the nature of the universe cannot be understood fully by inspecting spiral galaxies or watching distant supernovas. It lies deeper." -Robert Lanza

When you take a look at a spiral galaxy in the night sky, it seems obvious that the stars on the inner parts of the galaxy are going to orbit in less time than the stars in the outer part. This turns out to be true, something we've figured out even though the timescales for galaxies to complete a full revolution are far longer than we've ever been able to observe.

Image credit: ESO, taken with the EFOSC instrument, attached to the 3.58-metre New Technology Telescope at ESO's La Silla Observatory in Chile. Image credit: ESO, taken with the EFOSC instrument, attached to the 3.58-metre New Technology Telescope at ESO's La Silla Observatory in Chile.

But one thing that doesn't happen is that the arms don't "wind up," meaning that the galaxies don't see the spiral patterns intensify as they age. Even though we first observed spiral structure in galaxies back in the mid-1800s, we didn't understand what the cause of this effect was for over 100 years. Yet now, not only do we understand it, but we can explain why galaxies will never wind up over time, and how this effect is true with or without dark matter.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons user Ingo Berg, turned into a GIF by Forbes staff. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons user Ingo Berg, turned into a GIF by Forbes staff.

Go read the whole remarkable story on this week's Ask Ethan!

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