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Paper: Slipher, Galaxies, and Cosmological Velocity Fields
Volume: 471, Origins of the Expanding Universe: 1912-1932
Page: 3
Authors: Peacock, J. A.
Abstract: By 1917, V. M. Slipher had singlehandedly established a general tendency for ‘spiral nebulae’ to be redshifted (21 out of 25 cases). From a modern perspective, it could seem surprising that the discovery of the expansion of the universe was not announced at this point. Examination of the data and arguments contained in 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 favor of spiral nebulae as distant stellar systems. Nevertheless, Slipher's data actually contain evidence at >8σ for a positive mean velocity, even after subtracting the best-fitting dipole pattern owing to motion of the observer. In 1929, Hubble provided distance estimates for a sample of no greater depth, using redshifts due almost entirely to Slipher. Hubble's distances turned out to be 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.
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