My Ph.D. research work focused on the role of galaxy mergers in the evolution of massive galaxies, and I looked in particular at post-merger galaxies and infrared bright galaxies. My work would not have been possible without the help of my collaborators and the work of countless volunteers at the Galaxy Zoo citizen science project, who classified about 900,000 galaxies.
I also collaborated on a geology paper as a mathematics and statistics consultant. My peer-reviewed work is below:
Spheroidal post-mergers in the local Universe
Galaxy merging is a fundamental aspect of the standard hierarchical galaxy formation paradigm. Recently, the Galaxy Zoo project has compiled a large, homogeneous catalogue of 3373 mergers, through direct visual inspection of the entire Sloan Digital Sky Survey spectroscopic sample. We explore a subset of galaxies from this catalogue that are spheroidal ‘post-mergers’ (SPMs) – where a single remnant is in the final stages of relaxation after the merger and shows evidence for a dominant bulge, making them plausible progenitors of early-type galaxies. Our results indicate that the SPMs have bluer colours than the general early-type galaxy population possibly due to merger-induced star formation. An analysis using optical emission-line ratios indicates that 20 of our SPMs exhibit LINER or Seyfert-like activity (68 per cent), while the remaining 10 galaxies are classified as either star forming (16 per cent) or quiescent (16 per cent). A comparison to the emission-line activity in the ongoing mergers from Darg et al. indicates that the active galactic nuclei (AGN) fraction rises in the post-mergers, suggesting that the AGN phase probably becomes dominant only in the very final stages of the merger process. The optical colours of the SPMs and the plausible mass ratios for their progenitors indicate that, while a minority are consistent with major mergers between two early-type galaxies, the vast majority are remnants of major mergers where at least one progenitor is a late-type galaxy.
Dating alluvial fan surfaces in Owens Valley, California, using weathering fractures in boulders
A wide range of sedimentological and geomorphological field research depends on the availability of accurate and detailed depositional age models. Although exposure dating techniques such as cosmogenic nuclide and luminescence dating are now widely available, they remain expensive and time-consuming, and this frequently limits the density of age constraints and the resolutions of age models for many study areas. We present a simple and effective, field-based approach for extending and correlating existing age models to un-dated surfaces. In Owens Valley, California, we make use of detailed beryllium-10 (10Be) chronologies reported for four different alluvial fan systems, to precisely calibrate the rate at which weathering fractures are enlarged in granitic surface boulders. We show that these fractures have widened at a time-integrated rate of 1.05 ± 0.03 mm ka−1 for at least 140 ka at this location, and this relationship can be represented by a linear regression that makes them ideal chronometers for surface dating. Our analysis offers a new approach to refining the uncertainties of both surface erosion rate and cosmogenic age estimates at this location. Ultimately, we integrate our observations to devise a robust age calibration for clast fracture widths in Owens Valley, and we demonstrate its application by estimating the ages of 27 additional local fan surfaces. We present an updated and extended stratigraphy for eight Sierra Nevada fan systems in total, with exceptional age control. This novel approach to dating sedimentary surfaces is inexpensive and easily applied in the field, and has the potential to significantly increase the temporal and spatial density of age constraints available for a particular study area.
An infrared study of local galaxy mergers
We combine a large, homogeneous sample of ~3000 local mergers with the Imperial IRAS Faint Source Redshift Catalogue (IIFSCz), to perform a blind far-infrared (FIR) study of the local merger population. The IRAS-detected mergers are mostly (98%) spiral-spiral systems, residing in low density environments, a median FIR luminosity of 1011L⊙ (which translates to a median star formation rate of around 15 M⊙ yr-1). The FIR luminosity – and therefore the star formation rate – shows little correlation with group richness and scales with the total stellar mass of the system, with little or no dependence on the merger mass ratio. In particular, minor mergers (mass ratios <1:3) are capable of driving strong star formation (between 10 and 173 M⊙ yr-1) and producing systems that are classified as luminous infrared galaxies (LIRGS; 65% of our LIRGs are minor mergers), with some minor-merging systems being close to the ultra luminous infrared galaxy (ULIRG) limit. Optical emission line ratios indicate that the AGN fraction increases with increasing FIR luminosity, with all ULIRG mergers having some form of AGN activity. Finally, we estimate that the LIRG-to-ULIRG transition along a merger sequence typically takes place over a relatively short timescale of ~160 Myr.
Galaxy Zoo: Major Galaxy Mergers Are Not a Significant Quenching Pathway*
We use stellar mass functions to study the properties and the significance of quenching through major galaxy mergers. In addition to SDSS DR7 and Galaxy Zoo 1 data, we use samples of visually selected major galaxy mergers and post-merger galaxies. We determine the stellar mass functions of the stages that we would expect major-merger-quenched galaxies to pass through on their way from the blue cloud to the red sequence: (1) major merger, (2) post-merger, (3) blue early type, (4) green early type, and (5) red early type. Based on their similar mass function shapes, we conclude that major mergers are likely to form an evolutionary sequence from star formation to quiescence via quenching. Relative to all blue galaxies, the major-merger fraction increases as a function of stellar mass. Major-merger quenching is inconsistent with the mass and environment quenching model. At $z\sim 0$, major-merger-quenched galaxies are unlikely to constitute the majority of galaxies that transition through the green valley. Furthermore, between $z\sim 0-0.5$, major-merger-quenched galaxies account for 1%–5% of all quenched galaxies at a given stellar mass. Major galaxy mergers are therefore not a significant quenching pathway, neither at $z\sim 0$ nor within the last 5 Gyr. The majority of red galaxies must have been quenched through an alternative quenching mechanism that causes a slow blue to red evolution.