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No. 54: Nov-Dec 1987

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Icebergs and crouching giants

Astronomers have discovered what they believe is the largest, darkest, most gas-rich spiral galaxy known in a 'void' beyond the Virgo Cluster of Galaxies. Discovered by accident on long-exposure photographic plates, the object, called Malin 1, appears to be still forming.

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"'We didn't expect to find anything like this,' (C.) Impey says, referring to Malin 1. 'This galaxy is far removed from our ideas of what a normal galaxy should look like. There could be more of these things that haven't been discovered yet.'"

(Anonymous; "Massive, Dark Galaxy Found in Void," Astronomy, 15:75, September 1987.)

The same discovery is dealt with, in a more technical way, in Nature. A revealing paragraph from the Nature article follows:

"Although Malin 1 could be a unique case there is in fact a significant body of circumstantial evidence to suggest otherwise. Our present knowledge of the galaxy population is so biased by a single insidious selection effect that it is entirely possible that Malin 1 is just the first example of a class of such low-surface-brightness giant galaxies that forms a significant constituent of the universe."

The "selection effect" mentioned is a consequence of the very bright sky that confronts astronomers. Astronomical interest and instrumentation have focussed on those astronomical objects that are bright. In truth, the universe may be full of "icebergs and crouching giants." (Disney, Michael, and Phillipps, Steven; "Icebergs and Crouching Giants," Nature, 329:203, 1987.)

Comment. Since astronomers have built their models of galaxies, galactic distribution, and the evolution of the universe on an unrepresentative portion of the actual cosmos, we may be in for some major changes in our overall view of the universe and its beginning -- if it actually had one.

From Science Frontiers #54, NOV-DEC 1987. 1987-2000 William R. Corliss