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Understanding Galaxy Formation and Evolution with Realistic Simulations


Ma, Xiangcheng (2018) Understanding Galaxy Formation and Evolution with Realistic Simulations. Dissertation (Ph.D.), California Institute of Technology. doi:10.7907/MX2D-6P63.


Understanding the formation and evolution of galaxies from the Big Bang to the present day is one of the most important questions in modern astronomy. The tremendous amount of observational data accumulated in the past decade that probe various properties of galaxies across cosmic time demand a more detailed theoretical understanding of galaxy formation and evolution.

In this thesis, I will investigate several open question in this field using state-of-the-art cosmological hydrodynamic zoom-in simulations of galaxy formation from the Feedback in Realistic Environments (FIRE) suite. These high-resolution simulations (10-104M, 0.1-10pc) include realistic models of the multi-phase ISM, star formation, and stellar feedback and explicitly capture gas cooling down to 10 K, star formation in dense clumps in giant molecular clouds, and feedback coupling on the smallest resolved scales. These simulations are powerful tools for studying the key physics governing galaxy formation and evolution and understanding the detailed observations of galaxy properties.

The first half of this thesis presents three studies on galactic chemical evolution. Chapter 2 focuses on the origin and evolution of the galaxy mass-metallicity relation (MZR), one of the fundamental properties of galaxies. I will show that the FIRE simulations broadly agree with the observed galaxy MZR from z = 0-3. The slope of the MZR is mainly driven by the metal retention fraction in low-mass galaxies, while the amount of redshift evolution of the MZR is mostly determined by the star formation histories of galaxies. Chapter 3 attempts to understanding the diversity of gas-phase metallicity gradients found in intermediate-redshift (z ~ 0.6-3) galaxies. I will show that the metallicity gradient in a galaxy varies on small timescales driven by bursty star formation and feedback cycle at early times, naturally resulting in the observed diversity of metallicity gradients in z ~ 2 galaxies. The metallicity gradient only reflects the instantaneous dynamics of a galaxy. Chapter 4 will study the structure, stellar age and metallicity gradients, and formation history of Milky Way (MW)-like disk galaxies. At high redshift, star formation happens in a chaotic, bursty mode, which eventually forms a nearly spherical structure by z = 0. Since z ≾ 1, a stable gas disk emerged and stars formed in that disk thereafter. The thickness of the gas disk decreases with time due to lowering gas fraction. Stars formed earlier in this disk are kinematically heated to a thicker, flaring disk. Such a formation history leads to the age and stellar metallicity gradients consistent with what observed in the MW disk.

The second half of this thesis focuses on galaxy formation in the first billion years of the Universe, known as the reionization era. Chapters 5 and 6 study the escape fraction of ionizing photons from galaxies at z ≥ 5, which is an important, yet poorly constrained parameter for understanding the reionization history. Most ionizing photons are emitted by the youngest stellar populations in the galaxy, which are usually embedded in their 'birth clouds'. Stellar feedback is required to clear these clouds in a few Myr before ionizing photons are allowed escape. In the meanwhile, the ionizing photon budget decreases rapidly as the most massive stars start to die. The competition of timescales between feedback and stellar evolution is thus the most important physics determines fesc. I will show that canonical single-star stellar population models such as STARBURST99 generally yield a fesc far below what is required for cosmic reionization. Binary models, in contrast, produce more ionizing photons at late times than single-star models and thus lead to a much higher fesc. Chapter 7 presents a new suite of high-resolution cosmological zoom-in simulations of z ≥ 5 galaxies that contains thousands of halos at any time in all zoom-in regions. I will present the stellar mass-halo mass relation, SFR-Mhalo relation, stellar mass-magnitude relation, stellar mass functions, and multi-band luminosity functions at z = 5-12. These prediction agree well with current observational constraints and can be further tested by future observations with the James Webb Space Telescope. Using these new simulations, Chapter 8 studies the morphology and size evolution of galaxies at z ≥ 5. I will show that the rest-frame UV light from z ≥ 5 galaxies is usually dominated by one or several star-forming clumps that are intrinsically bright and small. Current observations with moderate surface brightness limits tend to only pick up the intrinsically small galaxies or individual clumps but miss the diffuse light in the galaxies. Such a selection effect is likely to result in the extremely small sizes claimed for the faint galaxies in the Hubble Frontier Fields.

Item Type:Thesis (Dissertation (Ph.D.))
Subject Keywords:Galaxies: formation; galaxies: evolution; galaxies: high-redshift; abundances; cosmology
Degree Grantor:California Institute of Technology
Division:Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy
Major Option:Physics
Awards:John Stager Stemple Memorial Prize in Physics, 2018.
Thesis Availability:Public (worldwide access)
Research Advisor(s):
  • Hopkins, Philip F.
Group:Theoretical Astrophysics
Thesis Committee:
  • Steidel, Charles C. (chair)
  • Hopkins, Philip F.
  • Kirby, Evan N.
  • Quataert, Eliot
Defense Date:27 April 2018
Record Number:CaltechTHESIS:05232018-173148982
Persistent URL:
Related URLs:
URLURL TypeDescription adapted for Chapter 2. adapted for Chapter 3. adapted for Chapter 4. adapted for Chapter 5. adapted for Chapter 6. adapted for Chapter 7. adapted for Chapter 8.
Ma, Xiangcheng0000-0001-8091-2349
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:10929
Deposited By: Xiangcheng Ma
Deposited On:25 May 2018 16:43
Last Modified:21 Aug 2018 22:41

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