In Search of the Thermal Eccentricity Distribution

Aaron M. Geller, Nathan W.C. Leigh, Mirek Giersz, Kyle Kremer, Frederic A. Rasio

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

33 Scopus citations


About a century ago, Jeans (1919) discovered that if binary stars reach a state approximating energy equipartition, for example, through many dynamical encounters that exchange energy, their eccentricity distribution can be described by . This is referred to as the thermal eccentricity distribution, and has been widely used for initial conditions in theoretical investigations of binary stars. However, observations suggest that the eccentricity distributions of most observed binaries, and particularly those with masses ≲5 M , are flatter than thermal and follow more closely to a uniform distribution. Nonetheless, it is often argued that dynamical interactions in a star cluster would quickly thermalize the binaries, which could justify imposing a thermal eccentricity distribution at birth for all binaries. In this paper, we investigate the validity of this assumption. We develop our own rapid semi-analytic model for binary evolution in star clusters, and also compare it with detailed N-body and Monte Carlo star cluster models. We show that, for nearly all binaries, dynamical encounters fail to convert an initially uniform eccentricity distribution to thermal within a star cluster's lifetime. Thus, if a thermal eccentricity distribution is observed, it is likely imprinted upon formation rather than through subsequent long-term dynamical processing. Theoretical investigations that initialize all binaries with a thermal distribution will make incorrect predictions for the evolution of the binary population. Such models may overpredict the merger rate for binaries with modest orbital separations by a factor of about two.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number165
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2019


  • binaries: general
  • globular clusters: general
  • methods: numerical
  • open clusters and associations: general
  • stars: black holes
  • stars: kinematics and dynamics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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