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High star formation rates as the origin of turbulence in early and modern disk galaxies


Observations of star formation and kinematics in early galaxies at high spatial and spectral resolution have shown that two-thirds are massive rotating disk galaxies1,2,3,4,5, with the remainder being less massive non-rotating objects2,4,6,7,8. The line-of-sight-averaged velocity dispersions are typically five times higher than in today’s disk galaxies. This suggests that gravitationally unstable, gas-rich disks in the early Universe are fuelled by cold, dense accreting gas flowing along cosmic filaments and penetrating hot galactic gas halos9,10. These accreting flows, however, have not been observed11, and cosmic accretion cannot power the observed level of turbulence12. Here we report observations of a sample of rare, high-velocity-dispersion disk galaxies in the nearby Universe where cold accretion is unlikely to drive their high star formation rates. We find that their velocity dispersions are correlated with their star formation rates, but not their masses or gas fractions, which suggests that star formation is the energetic driver of galaxy disk turbulence at all cosmic epochs.

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Figure 1: Kinematic pictures of local galaxies.
Figure 2: Distribution of galaxy velocity dispersion against Hα luminosity and stellar mass.


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A.W.G. and K.G. acknowledge financial support from the Australian Research Council. A.W.G. acknowledges a special scholarship from the Chancellery of the Swinburne University of Technology. We wish to thank the staff of the Anglo-Australian Observatory and the staff of the ANU 2.3-m telescope for their support of these observations.

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Authors and Affiliations



K.G. oversaw the project. A.W.G., K.G., I.D., P. J. McGregor, G.B.P. and R.G.S. collected the data at the telescope. A.W.G. completed the data reduction with help from P. J. McGregor and R.G.S. M.C. kindly provided observing time. A.W.G. and K.G. analysed the data and wrote the paper. All authors provided extensive suggestions and comments at each stage of the project.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Andrew W. Green.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Text comprising of an overview of comparison data presented, sample selection methods and σm errors and the effects of beam smearing and resolution. The file also contains Supplementary Figures 1-3 with legends and additional references. (PDF 415 kb)

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Green, A., Glazebrook, K., McGregor, P. et al. High star formation rates as the origin of turbulence in early and modern disk galaxies. Nature 467, 684–686 (2010).

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