A cosmological mystery that seems to defy modern physics has emerged from the graceful spinning of spiral galaxies.
Analysis by David Roscoe, a mathematician at the University of Sheffield, has uncovered an apparent analogue of the bizarre world of quantum mechanics but on a cosmic, rather than an atomic, scale.
Dr Roscoe's work has revealed that a key characteristic calculated from the rate at which galaxies rotate is limited to a series of set values rather than a continuous range, rather like a car that jumps spontaneously 10kph faster each time you touch the accelerator.
This flies in the face of orthodox gravitational theory and poses a challenge to the modern understanding of physics.
"We can see echoes of the early discoveries of quantum mechanics here, and in its own way it is possibly as significant," said Dr Roscoe.
The possibility that the universe might be organised in a hitherto unsuspected fashion opens
new avenues for the study of gravity.
Just as quantum mechanics describes how energy at an atomic level exists only in distinct, indivisible lumps, Dr Roscoe's results imply that an analogous system might be at work at the opposite end of the size scale.
What this means, however, remains pure speculation.
Dr Roscoe's initial results have been published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics, while analyses of new data samples in the past month have added weight to the conclusions.
Astronomers are able to tell how a galaxy is rotating from the behaviour of the light coming from it. When viewed edge on, light from different parts of the rotating disc of stars gets "shifted" along the spectrum by varying amounts. From this, its rate of rotation can be calculated.
Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, takes about 200 million years to make a single revolution.
Dr Roscoe has analysed three independent sets of rotation data involving almost 2,500 galaxies at a range of distances and in different areas of the sky. This information was gathered by independent teams of astronomers in Australia and the United States. In all cases the effect appears strongly.
"This is a real phenomenon of galactic dynamics that is likely to have very far-reaching implications for astrophysics in general," said Dr Roscoe.
The research sits alongside another cosmic quantisation conundrum - the observation that galaxies appear to be distributed about our own galaxy in a very regular fashion.