Killer new evidence that supermassive black holes may indeed form first, before galaxies. (Yeah, as I predicted...) PLUS, some more predictions, while I'm hot.
TL;DR: They've found the earliest supermassive black hole yet – and it weighs as much as ALL THE STARS IN ITS GALAXY PUT TOGETHER. (Interesting New Paper #2)
OK, let’s start with…
A QUICK REFRESHER, SO YOU GET THE INCREDIBLE IMPORTANCE OF THIS PAPER:
Remember, astronomers slowly discovered, over the past few decades, to their great surprise, that pretty much every galaxy they looked at in detail turned out to have a supermassive black hole lurking at its centre.
Now, by the time we made that discovery, we already knew how normal, ordinary, decent, law-abiding, tax-paying, not-supermassive black holes formed: When a large star ran out of fuel and collapsed, its outer layers rebounded and blew away in a supernova explosion – but its core kept on collapsing, to form a stellar-mass black hole that might weigh anything from three times the mass of our own sun to roughly fifty times the mass. That’s satisfyingly chunky, sure, but it’s not supermassive.
Because many of the supermassive black holes found at the centre of galaxies weighed millions of times, and even billions of times, the mass of our sun. A star a million times bigger than our sun (let alone a billion times bigger) wasn’t even theoretically possible, so how the hell did they form?
And so mainstream cosmology scrambled around to explain how these supermassive black holes could form in the time available. And the original mainstream answer, for many years, was that lots and LOTS and LOTS of relatively small stellar-mass black holes must, somehow, randomly collide and slowly combine to form these magnificent beasts, which then continue to grow by pulling in lots of gas due to their immense gravity.
Note, that requires the stars to form first, and eventually burn out and collapse, to make small black holes, which join to form larger ones, and eventually build supermassive black holes. Classic mainstream cosmology: a slow, bottom-up, random process – with stars coming first, and supermassive black holes a slow and distant second.
But – even before the James Webb Space Telescope – as astronomers looked further and further back in time, towards the Big Bang, they kept finding really fucking big supermassive black holes, and they started to run out of time for slowly and randomly assembling them from lots and lots of small stellar-mass black holes.
So nearly 20 years ago, a few gutsy scientists, including Mitchell C. Begelman, Marta Volonteri, Martin Rees, Volker Bromm, and Priyamvada Natarajan, came up with, and developed, the idea of direct collapse supermassive black holes. These formed directly, in that they went straight from gas to black hole, without ever making stars. How? From the collapse of an immense area of the incredibly smooth and featureless gas (roughly 75% hydrogen, 25% helium – and only the very faintest, negligible traces of anything else) that comprised the early, expanding universe; gas so smooth and even that it contained no areas of higher density from which to nucleate stars as it collapsed. (Imagine, by analogy, a perfectly even cloud of distilled water in a totally windless sky; a cloud that contained no dust motes to nucleate raindrops, and which instead just eventually formed, and dropped, one single giant raindrop…)
My prediction that, in an evolved universe, you would expect to find direct collapse supermassive black holes forming first, and then generating the conditions for galaxy formation around themselves, drew heavily on those scientists’ mathematical proof that such direct collapse was possible. But it was basically a fringe theory. Until now.
Last month (on November 6th 2023), a new paper by Ákos Bogdán, Andy D. Goulding, Priyamvada Natarajan, and a bunch of other good people …ah, why not go full Oscars speech on this, and name everybody? They don’t get nearly enough enough glory for doing this fascinating, much-misunderstood, unfairly obscure work: Orsolya Kovacs! Grant Tremblay! (who wrote both the Smithsonian-published history Light from the Void: Twenty Years of Discovery with NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory (with Belinda Wilkes and Martin Weisskopf), and (with middle-grade teacher Katie Coppens), the slightly more accessible and fart-joke-filled What do Black Holes Eat for Dinner? – sample fact, what happens to pee in space: “it would boil, then freeze”), Urmila Chadayammuri! The legendary Marta Volonteri, co-author of one of the earliest papers on this subject, back in 2006! Ralph Kraft! William Forman! Christine Jones! Eugene Churazov! Irina Zhuravleva! …where were we? Yes, this new paper was published in Nature, announcing the discovery of the earliest known supermassive black hole to date, only 470 million years after the Big Bang. (So, when the universe was only 3% of its current age.) But here’s the killer detail: That extremely early supermassive black hole is as massive as all the stars in the galaxy around it added together.
It can’t have slowly assembled from enormous numbers of smaller, stellar-mass black holes – from enormous numbers of collapsed stars – because there weren’t nearly enough stars at that point, with the universe only 3% of its current age. The mass of the central supermassive black hole, compared to the mass of the surrounding stars, is totally out of balance.
Bear in mind, in our local neighbourhood, over 13 billion years later, the supermassive black holes at the centre of galaxies weigh, on average, only 0.1% as much as all the stars in their galaxy. They are BIG, but the mass of stars is a thousand times bigger. (Because, by now, after many billions of years of star formation, mature spiral galaxies, say, can contain from tens of billions to trillions of stars.) And that ratio of star mass to central black hole mass – very roughly a thousand to one – is remarkably consistent.
But THIS (extremely early) supermassive black hole weighs, at minimum, as much as ten million suns, and may well be as heavy as a hundred million suns. So, say forty or fifty million. And that’s a conservative estimate, given the data! They’ve rounded it down, a lot, to be super-careful! While all the stars of its surrounding galaxy, added together, only add up to the mass of very roughly forty million suns. (That’s a bit of a guess of course, as it’s hard to judge at such a distance, but it’s unlikely to be out by a HUGE amount.) They are roughly the same mass!
Put another way, this galaxy is still in the very early stages of formation – and yet the central supermassive black hole is already mature.
Put another way, the supermassive black hole is already of roughly the kind of size we see in the contemporary universe, in our neighbourhood; but the stars in this early galaxy are much smaller in number – and much more tightly grouped – than we see in the galaxies around us that have such large black holes.
Put yet another way; here we have a supermassive black hole that is a THOUSAND TIMES MORE MASSIVE, in relation to the mass of all the stars around it, than those in our local universe.
So this is a SPECTACULAR result, with hugely positive implications for the theories being explored here on The Egg and the Rock.
And of course this is a massive result, not just for me and the Evolved Universe Hypothesis, but for Mitchell C. Begelman, Marta Volonteri, Martin Rees, Volker Bromm, Priyamvada Natarajan and others, who argued, almost twenty years ago (in the teeth of great skepticism at the time) that direct collapse supermassive black holes were possible.
I predicted back in July last year that several of these people would one day get a Nobel Prize for that work. My confidence in that prediction has just gone up. Put money on it, if you can.
Anyway, here is the abstract from that new paper in Nature. (And yes, if lines like “This heavily obscured quasar with a bolometric luminosity of Lbol ~5 × 10^45 erg s^−1 harbours an ~10^7−10^8 M⊙ BH assuming accretion at the Eddington limit” leave you baffled and with a headache, feel free to skip it.)
Below it, I have translated it into English and added my comments, spelling out some of its implications, and making some predictions. (Nature has paywalled it, so here is the earlier version, free to read on Arxiv.)
ABSTRACT, BABY, ABSTRACT, BABY, ABSTRACT! THAT’S WHERE IT’S AT!
Evidence for heavy-seed origin of early supermassive black holes from a z ≈ 10 X-ray quasar
by Ákos Bogdán, Andy D. Goulding, Priyamvada Natarajan, Orsolya E. Kovács, Grant R. Tremblay, Urmila Chadayammuri, Marta Volonteri, Ralph P. Kraft, William R. Forman, Christine Jones, Eugene Churazov & Irina Zhuravleva
Observations of quasars reveal that many supermassive black holes (BHs) were in place less than 700 Myr after the Big Bang. However, the origin of the first BHs remains a mystery. Seeds of the first BHs are postulated to be either light (that is, 10−100 M⊙), remnants of the first stars, or heavy (that is, 10^4 − 10^5 M⊙), originating from the direct collapse of gas clouds. Here, harnessing recent data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory, we report the detection of an X-ray-luminous massive BH in a gravitationally lensed galaxy identified by the James Webb Space Telescope at redshift z ≈ 10.3 behind the cluster lens Abell 2744. This heavily obscured quasar with a bolometric luminosity of Lbol ~5 × 10^45 erg s^−1 harbours an ~10^7−10^8 M⊙ BH assuming accretion at the Eddington limit. This mass is comparable to the inferred stellar mass of its host galaxy, in contrast to what is found in the local Universe wherein the BH mass is ~0.1% of the host galaxy’s stellar mass. The combination of such a high BH mass and large BH-to-galaxy stellar mass ratio just ~500 Myr after the Big Bang was theoretically predicted and is consistent with a picture wherein BHs originated from heavy seeds.
Or, to put that in English: they were able to observe an extremely distant, early galaxy, because its tiny, dim image was magnified greatly by the gravitational lens formed by a much nearer galaxy cluster (Abell 2744). The James Webb Space Telescope was able to observe how bright that distant, early galaxy was in the infrared: that is, it could see the dim, low-energy, redshifted light from its stars. But they also pointed the Chandra X-ray telescope at it. The Chandra can detect all the very high-energy light which the James Webb can’t see. And so the Chandra was able to see the, far more energetic, X-rays coming from its central supermassive black hole (as highly excited gas circled it at close to the speed of light), which allowed us to estimate the mass of that central supermassive black hole. And it turns out the central black hole weighs as much as all the stars in the young, rapidly-forming galaxy around it.
Going into this, we had two theories about how the supermassive central black holes in galaxies formed; one was as a small initial seed from a star collapse (which over time would grow larger by feeding on gas and other small black holes). One was as a much larger, heavier, initial seed, from a direct collapse of a much larger amount of gas. This is extremely strong evidence for the latter.
Absolute killer paper, right? You never get evidence this strong and direct.
THOUGHTS, AND PREDICTIONS (SOME OF THEM ALL SHINY AND NEW!)
OK, in the light of this excellent new paper, here are my thoughts – a mixture of observation, interpretation, and prediction. (Obviously I’m drawing here on my version of an evolved universe theory, which is based on, and extends, Lee Smolin’s theory of cosmological natural selection, plus some more recent and wonderful work by Clément Vidal, John Smart, Michael E. Price, and Louis Crane. But the wilder guesses, and any fuckups therein, are all mine.)
SUPERMASSIVE BLACK HOLES FORM FIRST
Well, my own expansion of Smolin’s theory has predicted all along that supermassive black holes must form first, in extremely large numbers, before galaxies – and then generate the galaxies around themselves (by stimulating rapid star formation). That’s because supermassive black holes are primary and fundamental, in evolutionary terms – they are the one thing that reproductively successful universes along our direct evolutionary line must have been able to do from the very earliest generations of universe – and will have been conserved from such early, primitive universes. The much smaller, and more numerous, stellar-collapse black holes that we see in our universe are secondary, in evolutionary terms; they are a later (and highly reproductively successful!) mutation, which cannot precede supermassive black holes in the developmental unfolding of our specific universe, any more than the (recently evolved) prefrontal cortex could precede the (evolutionarily ancient) heart in the developmental unfolding of my son Arlo. This new paper reinforces that belief/prediction.
Before we move on, I want to spell this out again in boring detail, because it’s important: There are many highly successful animals with a heart, but no prefrontal cortex (for example, all fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, plus many mammals). There are no animals at all with a prefrontal cortex but no heart. That’s simply the logic of evolution, which builds on its earlier successes. The evolution of the prefrontal cortex requires the, much earlier, evolution of the heart; the reverse, however, is not the case. Likewise, I’m arguing that the logic of evolution ensures there can be many successful universes (in our universe’s evolutionary line) which produce supermassive black holes, while not producing the more complex structure that is a galaxy of stars and its vast numbers of associated stellar-mass black holes; but there can be no universes which produce galaxies of stars and their vast numbers of associated stellar-mass black holes while not producing supermassive black holes.
A TECHNICAL SIDE NOTE, because some people have asked about this (feel free to skip): Yes, such very early supermassive black holes could, theoretically, be formed in one of two different ways, at two different times. They could either be primordial – that is, could be formed in the first fraction of a second of incredibly rapid inflation after the Big Bang, when mass/energy density was absurdly high – or they could be formed at some point in the many, many millions of years that follow, by the direct collapse of giant gas clouds, as the universe continues to expand. My bet is on their formation by direct collapse of smooth gas clouds, somewhere in the first 100 million years – and probably well inside the first 50 million years – because such ultra-smooth (but not PERFECTLY smooth) gas clouds look to me to be optimised (by evolution) for such large-scale direct collapse. But if they turned out to be primordial, and generated in the immediate aftermath of the Big Bang, perhaps deep inside the very first second, by inflation, that would be fine by me too (they could still drive galaxy formation): I just think it’s less likely, and there is less evidence for it. OK, end of aside. Back to my predictions.
GALAXIES FORM AROUND THOSE DIRECT COLLAPSE SUPERMASSIVE BLACK HOLES
So, galaxies don’t form bottom-up, with small numbers of stars forming, then merging, then merging again with other small clusters, to eventually come together to form galaxies. The majority of galaxies are born fully formed and structured – that is, not from random fragments – building outwards from the active galactic nucleus generated by the initial direct collapse supermassive black hole (which creates the conditions for rapid early star formation). Which leads on to my next prediction…
STAR FORMATION RATES ARE FAR HIGHER, FAR EARLIER, THAN THE MAINSTREAM HAS ASSUMED
Currently, star formation rates are seen as peaking around two to three billion years after the Big Bang (at what is often called Cosmic High Noon). I’m going to argue that this will turn out not to be the case: sure, star formation rates are high at that point, but star formation will be found to be even faster right at the start, in the first three to four hundred million years after the Big Bang (and starting just after the generation, well within the first fifty million years, of a huge wave of direct collapse supermassive black holes).
Star formation in the first billion years has been underestimated for several reasons: Firstly and most obviously, we simply had no data from the first billion years, until the James Webb Space Telescope came along, because, before then, all the light from that era was so redshifted, our existing telescopes couldn’t detect it. (As I have explained in depth, both on this website and in The Irish Times, the James Webb Space Telescope is a goddamn technological miracle.) So before last year, we were guessing; scientists were literally in the dark.
And, crucially, they built their guesses on a false foundation: the assumption that our universe was a one-shot universe, with no history before the Big Bang – and certainly no evolutionary history; that it was thus made of matter with random properties, blindly obeying arbitrary laws. In such a universe, progress towards order would indeed be chaotic, slow, random, accidental; galaxies should indeed form in a gradual and halting process, from the bottom up, with small patches of stars clumsily and randomly assembled by gravity into larger ensembles with chaotic shapes, and only much later, somehow, finding the spiral forms we see all around us in the present day universe.
If, however, our universe was instead the result of a long, Darwinian, evolutionary process at the level of universes, with the basic parameters of matter fine-tuned by evolution for rapid early galaxy formation (and thus reproductive success), none of these assumptions would be true. And so it is turning out to be.
Another reason they underestimated early star formation rates is that – if I am right, and direct collapse supermassive black holes drive intense star formation in the early universe by enriching and shocking the gas in their immediate environment, optimising it for star formation, as well as, of course, acting as powerful gravitational attractors – those galaxies will start off incredibly compact. The earliest stars in those galaxies are being generated near the central supermassive black hole (and as a direct result of the influence of the supermassive black hole). They won’t cover much sky. And remember, this is the very early universe, it hasn’t expanded much yet, everything is pretty close together and the gas is still pretty dense compared to our massively expanded and thinned-out current state. So large quantities of gas and dust will obscure the star-making centre of the galaxy, near the supermassive black hole.
AND THIS IS ALSO TURNING OUT TO BE TRUE! Another great paper, by Carolina Andonie, David M Alexander, Claire Greenwell, Annagrazia Puglisi, et al, published two months back in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: Letters, shows that huge amounts of gas and dust in the early universe may be obscuring the central quasars in rapidly forming galaxies.
REMIND ME AGAIN WHAT A QUASAR IS
Sure. Remember, the quasar is the ultra-hot-spot at the centre of some galaxies (particularly early ones), where gas accelerates close to the speed of light as it is pulled towards, and rotates around (and ultimately vanishes into) the central supermassive black hole, causing the gas to give off x-rays, and shoot out jets of charged particles at close to light speed, as it spins closer and closer to the supermassive black hole. That spinning donut of gas around the central black hole is called the accretion disc: mainstream theories had assumed that only the gas and dust in the (relatively small and tight) accretion disc could be obscuring the central quasar. Which meant we should be able to see most quasars. Corollary: if you didn’t see a quasar, there was no quasar. So, because we couldn’t see many quasars in the first couple of billion years after the Big Bang, there were no quasars back then.
But it turns out there can be huge amounts of thick dust and gas in early galaxies (not just in the small, tight accretion disc, but throughout the galaxy), which obscure the quasar – and also obscure many of the new stars forming close to the quasar. So again there has been a severe undercount of star formation rates in early galaxies – and an under-appreciation of the role quasars play in that star formation. As I (modest cough) predicted.
The thing is, if I am right, then these early, powerful quasars only tend to come into full view once most of the dust and gas has been used up, and turned into stars; this is why most astronomers currently claim that quasars, and active galactic nuclei more generally, quench star formation – because they only get a clear view of the quasar once most of the star formation is over. But papers like this may start to win them over to my approach.
Here’s that paper (Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: Letters, Volume 527, Issue 1, January 2024, Pages L144–L150), if you want to dive deeper:
And here is a (slightly more reader friendly) Space-dot-com article on the paper, with lots of juicy quotes like this:
"This quasar-blocking dust was actually a surprise. We were not expecting to observe this."
The team's findings suggest there may be more quasars in the universe than believed. Many star-forming stars may be harboring active supermassive black holes at their hearts and blocking their emissions of the quasars, the study suggests.
"It is possible that some of these galaxies that we didn't think have quasars at their center are hiding a quasar that we just can't see in optical light."
Note again, above, the return of my favourite phrase, the one you see again and again because all our errors in cosmology lean in the same direction:
“We were not expecting to observe this."
What do you mean we, kemo sabe? I will quietly remind you again of the prediction I made on quasars, and supermassive black holes, before the James Webb Space Telescope had released any data at all:
As a result, galaxies will form efficiently, and early. I argue that huge numbers of supermassive black holes and their quasars will be blazing away merrily, well inside the first fifty million years. There will be absolutely loads of recognisable, rapidly growing (rapidly star-forming) galaxies within the first 100 million years (probably much sooner). This is earlier than the mainstream have traditionally assumed. (They keep having to shuffle a bit further back, as they find new quasars, and their galaxies, ever further back in time. But they are pushed there, reluctantly, against the logic of their paradigm; I am leaping there, exultantly, because my paradigm predicts it.)
So the James Webb Space Telescope will basically see galaxies with active galactic nuclei (ie, quasars and jets) all the way back, because those active nuclei come first and are what form galaxies.
Quasars are fairly rare now; I am arguing that they will turn out to be ubiquitous in the very earliest stages of the universe because they are the engines that build out galaxies.
–Me, on July 8th 2022, getting my predictions out in public before the James Webb Space Telescope had released any data
Yeah, this has been an INCREDIBLY good month for the evolved universe hypothesis.
Oh, one last thing…
LOOK FOR THE X-RAYS
So here’s my big tip for the astronomers: When you find small, dense, early galaxies with the James Webb Space Telescope, glowing away in the infrared, and clearly making stars at a rapid pace, please point Chandra in their direction, and look at them again in the x-ray range. I predict you will, again and again, find they already contain impressively large supermassive black holes, merrily accreting gas and blasting out x-rays – and driving that star formation. These are supermassive black holes which you will not be able to easily see in the infrared which the James Webb Space Telescope is calibrated to detect, because the light in that frequency range is being obscured by much larger amounts of dust and gas than anticipated. OK, go get ’em, tigers!
Well, that was fun. Please pass this on to your cosmologist, astrophysicist, and astronomer friends, and to any science journalists you know, so that we can put an end to this irritating, endless “Nobody predicted this…” shite, every time something we predicted, in detail, turns out to be true.
Evolved Universe theory for the win!
Comments and feedback welcome…
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