Theories of how galaxies, the fundamental constituents of large-scale structure, form and evolve have undergone a dramatic paradigm shift in the last few decades. Earlier views were of rapid, early collapse and formation of basic structures, followed by slow evolution of the stellar populations and steady buildup of the chemical elements. Current theories emphasize hierarchical buildup via recurrent collisions and mergers, separated by long periods of relaxation and secular restructuring. Thus, collisions between galaxies are now seen as a primary process in their evolution. This article begins with a brief history of how this once peripheral subject found its way to center stage. The author then tours parts of the vast array of collisional forms that have been discovered to date. Many examples are provided to illustrate how detailed numerical models and multiwaveband observations have allowed the general chronological sequence of collisional morphologies to be deciphered, and how these forms are produced by the processes of tidal kinematics, hypersonic gas dynamics, collective dynamical friction and violent relaxation. Galaxy collisions may trigger the formation of a large fraction of all the stars ever formed, and play a key role in fueling active galactic nuclei. Current understanding of the processes involved is reviewed. The last decade has seen exciting new discoveries about how collisions are orchestrated by their environment, how collisional processes depend on environment, and how these environments depend on redshift or cosmological time. These discoveries and prospects for the future are summarized in the final sections.
- Pub Date:
- Galaxies: Collisions;
- Galaxy Evolution: Cosmology;
- 138 pg. review article, 28 figures, in press for Physics Reports. Intended as an introduction for non-specialists