Date of Award

Fall 2011

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Physics and Astronomy


Alison Sills


William Harris



Committee Member

William Harris


In this thesis, we present theoretical and statistical techniques broadly related to systems of dynamically-interacting particles. We apply these techniques to observations of dense star clusters in order to study gravitational interactions between stars. These include both long- and short-range interactions, as well as encounters leading to direct collisions and mergers. The latter have long been suspected to be an important formation channel for several curious types of stars whose origins are unknown. The former drive the structural evolution of star clusters and, by leading to their eventual dissolution and the subsequent dispersal of their stars throughout the Milky Way Galaxy, have played an important role in shaping its history. Within the last few decades, theoretical work has painted a comprehensive picture for the evolution of star clusters. And yet, we are still lacking direct observational confirmation that many of the processes thought to be driving this evolution are actually occuring. The results presented in this thesis have connected several of these processes to real observations of star clusters, in many cases for the first time. This has allowed us to directly link the observed properties of several stellar populations to the physical processes responsible for their origins.

We present a new method of quantifying the frequency of encounters involving single, binary and triple stars using an adaptation of the classical mean free path approximation. With this technique, we have shown that dynamical encounters involving triple stars occur commonly in star clusters, and that they are likely to be an important dynamical channel for stellar mergers to occur. This is a new result that has important implications for the origins of several peculiar types of stars (and binary stars), in particular blue stragglers. We further present several new statistical techniques that are broadly applicable to systems of dynamically-interacting particles composed of several different types of populations. These are applied to observations of star clusters in order to obtain quantitative constraints for the degree to which dynamical interactions affect the relative sizes and spatial distributions of their different stellar populations. To this end, we perform an extensive analysis of a large sample of colour-magnitude diagrams taken from the ACS Survey for Globular Clusters. The results of this analysis can be summarized as follows: (1) We have compiled a homogeneous catalogue of stellar populations, including main-sequence, main-sequence turn-off, red giant branch, horizontal branch and blue straggler stars. (2) With this catalogue, we have quantified the effects of the cluster dynamics in determining the relative sizes and spatial distributions of these stellar populations. (3) These results are particularly interesting for blue stragglers since they provide compelling evidence that they are descended from binary stars. (4) Our analysis of the main-sequence populations is consistent with a remarkably universal initial stellar mass function in old massive star clusters in the Milky Way. This is a new result with important implications for our understanding of star formation in the early Universe and, more generally, the history of our Galaxy. Finally, we describe how the techniques presented in this thesis are ideally suited for application to a number of other outstanding puzzles of modern astrophysics, including chemical reactions in the interstellar medium and mergers between galaxies in galaxy clusters and groups.

McMaster University Library

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