The initial mass function (IMF) is a key ingredient in many studies of galaxy formation and evolution. Although the IMF is often assumed to be universal, there is continuing evidence that it is not universal. Spectroscopic studies that derive the IMF of the unresolved stellar populations of a galaxy often assume that this spectrum can be described by a single stellar population (SSP). To alleviate these limitations, in this paper we have developed a unique hierarchical Bayesian framework for modelling composite stellar populations (CSPs). Within this framework, we use a parametrized IMF prior to regulate a direct inference of the IMF. We use this new framework to determine the number of SSPs that is required to fit a set of realistic CSP mock spectra. The CSP mock spectra that we use are based on semi-analytic models and have an IMF that varies as a function of stellar velocity dispersion of the galaxy. Our results suggest that using a single SSP biases the determination of the IMF slope to a higher value than the true slope, although the trend with stellar velocity dispersion is overall recovered. If we include more SSPs in the fit, the Bayesian evidence increases significantly and the inferred IMF slopes of our mock spectra converge, within the errors, to their true values. Most of the bias is already removed by using two SSPs instead of one. We show that we can reconstruct the variable IMF of our mock spectra for signal-to-noise ratios exceeding ~75.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Astronomy and Astrophysics
- Space and Planetary Science
- Galaxies: luminosity function
- Galaxies: stellar content
- Mass function
- Methods: Statistical