Simulations show how growing black holes regulate galaxy formation

February 09, 2005

Using a new computer model of galaxy formation, researchers have shown that growing black holes release a blast of energy that fundamentally regulates galaxy evolution and black hole growth itself. The model explains for the first time observed phenomena and promises to deliver deeper insights into our understanding of galaxy formation and the role of black holes throughout cosmic history, according to its creators.

Published in the Feb. 10 issue of Nature, the results were generated by Carnegie Mellon University astrophysicist Tiziana Di Matteo and her colleagues while at the Max Planck Institut fur Astrophysik in Germany. Di Matteo's collaborators include Volker Springel at Max-Planck Institut fur Astrophysik and Lars Hernquist at Harvard University.

"In recent years, scientists have begun to appreciate that the total mass of stars in today's galaxies corresponds directly to the size of a galaxy's black hole, but until now, no one could account for this observed relationship," said Di Matteo, associate professor of physics at Carnegie Mellon. "Using our simulations has given us a completely new way to explore this problem." The key to the researchers' breakthrough was incorporating calculations for black hole dynamics into a computational model of galaxy formation.

As galaxies formed in the early universe, they likely contained small black holes at their centers. In the standard scenario of galaxy formation, galaxies grow by coming together with one another by the pull of gravity. In the process, the black holes at their center merge together and quickly grow to reach their observed masses of a billion times that of the Sun; hence, they are called supermassive black holes. Also at the time of merger, the majority of stars form from available gas. Today's galaxies and their central black holes must be the result of a series of such events.

Di Matteo and her colleagues simulated the collision of two nascent galaxies and found that when the two galaxies came together, their two supermassive black holes merged and initially consumed the surrounding gas. But this activity was self-limiting. As the remnant galaxy's supermassive black hole sucked up gas, it powered a luminescent state called a quasar. The quasar energized the surrounding gas to such a level that it was blown away from the vicinity of the supermassive black hole to the outside of the galaxy. Without nearby gas, the galaxy's supermassive black hole could not "eat" to sustain itself and became dormant. At the same time, gas was no longer available to form any more stars.

"We've discovered that the energy released by black holes during a quasar phase powers a strong wind that prevents material from falling into the black hole," Springel said. "This process inhibits further black hole growth and shuts off the quasar, just as star formation stops inside a galaxy. As a result, the black hole mass and the mass of stars in a galaxy are closely linked. Our results also explain for the first time why the quasar lifetime is such a short phase compared to the life of a galaxy."

In their simulations, Di Matteo, Springel and Hernquist found that the black holes in small galaxies self-limit their growth more effectively than in those in larger galaxies. A smaller galaxy contains smaller amounts of gas so that a small amount of energy from the black hole can quickly blow this gas away. In a large galaxy, the black hole can reach a greater size before its surrounding gas is energized enough to stop falling in. With their gas quickly spent, smaller galaxies make fewer stars. With a longer-lived pool of gas, larger galaxies make more stars. These findings match the observed relation between black hole size and the total mass of stars in galaxies.

"Our simulations demonstrate that self-regulation can quantitatively account for observed facts associated with black holes and galaxies," said Hernquist, professor and chair of astronomy in Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences. "It provides an explanation for the origin of the quasar lifetime and should allow us to understand why quasars were more plentiful in the early universe than they are today."

"With these computations, we now see that black holes must have an enormous impact on the way galaxies form and evolve," Di Matteo said. "The successes obtained so far will allow us to implement these models within larger simulated universes, so that we can understand how large populations of black holes and galaxies influence each other in a cosmological context."

The team ran their simulations with the extensive computing resources of the Center for Parallel Astrophysical Computing at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and at the Rechenzentrum der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft in Garching.
To reach Lars Hernquist, please contact Steve Bradt at 617-496-8070 or To reach Volker Springel, please contact Andreas Trepte at 49-892-108-1238 or

Carnegie Mellon University

Related Black Hole Articles from Brightsurf:

Black hole or no black hole: On the outcome of neutron star collisions
A new study lead by GSI scientists and international colleagues investigates black-hole formation in neutron star mergers.

The black hole always chirps twice: New clues deciphering the shape of black holes
A team of gravitational-wave scientists led by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav) reveal that when two black holes collide and merge, the remnant black hole 'chirps' not once, but multiple times, emitting gravitational waves--intense ripples in the fabric space and time--that inform us about its shape.

Wobbling shadow of the M87 black hole
New analysis from the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) Collaboration reveals the behavior of the supermassive black hole in the center of the M87 galaxy across multiple years, indicating the crescent-like shadow feature appears to be wobbling.

How to have a blast like a black hole
Scientists at Osaka University have created magnetized-plasma conditions similar to those near a black hole using very intense laser pulses.

Black hole collision may have exploded with light
Astronomers have seen what appears to the first light ever detected from a black hole merger.

Black hole's heart still beating
The first confirmed heartbeat of a supermassive black hole is still going strong more than ten years after first being observed.

Black hole team discovers path to razor-sharp black hole images
A team of researchers have published new calculations that predict a striking and intricate substructure within black hole images from extreme gravitational light bending.

Planets around a black hole?
Theoreticians in two different fields defied the common knowledge that planets orbit stars like the Sun.

Black hole mergers: Cooking with gas
Gravitational wave detectors are finding black hole mergers in the universe at the rate of one per week.

Going against the flow around a supermassive black hole
At the center of a galaxy called NGC 1068, a supermassive black hole hides within a thick doughnut-shaped cloud of dust and gas.

Read More: Black Hole News and Black Hole Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to