The Propagation of Uncertainties in Stellar Population Synthesis Modeling. I. The Relevance of Uncertain Aspects of Stellar Evolution and the Initial Mass Function to the Derived Physical Properties of Galaxies
The stellar masses, mean ages, metallicities, and star formation histories of galaxies are now commonly estimated via stellar population synthesis (SPS) techniques. SPS relies on stellar evolution calculations from the main sequence to stellar death, stellar spectral libraries, phenomenological dust models, and stellar initial mass functions (IMFs) to translate the evolution of a multimetallicity, multi-age set of stars into a prediction for the time-evolution of the integrated light from that set of stars. Each of these necessary inputs carries significant uncertainties that have until now received little systematic attention. The present work is the first in a series that explores the impact of uncertainties in key phases of stellar evolution and the IMF on the derived physical properties of galaxies and the expected luminosity evolution for a passively evolving set of stars. A Monte Carlo Markov Chain approach is taken to fit near-UV through near-IR photometry of a representative sample of low- and high-redshift galaxies with this new SPS model. Significant results include the following. (1) Including uncertainties in stellar evolution, stellar masses at z ~ 0 carry errors of ~0.3 dex at 95% CL with little dependence on luminosity or color, while at z ~ 2, the masses of bright red galaxies are uncertain at the ~0.6 dex level. (2) Either current stellar evolution models, current observational stellar libraries, or both, do not adequately characterize the metallicity-dependence of the thermally pulsating AGB phase. (3) Conservative estimates on the uncertainty of the slope of the IMF in the solar neighborhood imply that luminosity evolution per unit redshift is uncertain at the ~0.4 mag level in the K band, which is a substantial source of uncertainty for interpreting the evolution of galaxy populations across time. Any possible evolution in the IMF, as suggested by several independent lines of evidence, will only exacerbate this problem. (4) Assuming a distribution of stellar metallicities within a galaxy, rather than a fixed value as is usually assumed, can yield important differences when considering bands blueward of V, but is not a concern for redder bands. Spectroscopic information may alleviate some of these concerns, though uncertainties in the stellar spectral libraries and the importance of nonsolar abundance ratios have not yet been systematically investigated in the SPS context.