Slipher, galaxies, and cosmological velocity fields

Research output: Working paper

Abstract / Description of output

By 1917, V.M. Slipher had singlehandedly established a tendency for 'spiral nebulae' to be redshifted (21 out of 25 cases). From a modern perspective, it could seem surprising that the expansion of the universe was not announced at this point. Examination of Slipher's papers shows that he reached a more subtle conclusion: the identification of cosmological peculiar velocities, including the bulk motion of the Milky Way, leading to a beautiful argument in favour of nebulae as distant stellar systems. Nevertheless, Slipher's data actually contain evidence at >8sigma for a positive mean velocity, even after subtracting the dipole owing to the motion of the observer. In 1929, Hubble estimated distances for a sample of no greater depth, using redshifts due almost entirely to Slipher. Hubble's distances were flawed in two distinct ways: in addition to an incorrect absolute calibration, the largest distances were systematically under-estimated. Nevertheless, he claimed the detection of a linear distance-redshift relation. Statistically, the evidence for such a correlation is less strong than the simple evidence for a positive mean velocity in Hubble's sample. Comparison with modern data shows that a sample of more than twice Hubble's depth would generally be required in order to reveal clearly the global linear expansion in the face of the 'noise' from peculiar velocities. When the theoretical context of the time is examined, the role of the de Sitter model and its prediction of a linear distance-redshift relation looms large. A number of searches for this relation were performed prior to Hubble over the period 1924-1928, with a similar degree of success. All were based on the velocities measured by Slipher, whose work from a Century ago stands out both for the precision of his measurements and for the subtle clarity of the arguments he employed to draw correct conclusions from them.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2013


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