Saturday, August 14, 2010

What is a Galaxy, Anyway?

Though we can't see it directly, the sky is full of galaxies. A few can be seen directly, like the Andromeda Galaxy, and some others under excellent viewing conditions. A pair of binoculars will show more of them, and in fact is one of the best ways of viewing Andromeda. Andromeda covers such a large area of sky that few telescopes will show all of it at once--it takes the wide field of view of a pair of binoculars to see it all.

In pictures taken by space telescopes, we can see fields filled with galaxies. The galaxies are scattered across the image like stars. These images cover a ridiculously small area of the total sky above us. If the number of galaxies in these pictures is multiplied by the number of pictures that it would take to cover the entire sky, we learn that there are more galaxies in the sky than there are stars that we can see with our eyes, even on the darkest of nights.

Our view of a galaxy has not always been the view we have now, though. The word "galaxy" has had, historically, a rather slippery sense of meaning.

The Galaxy as a Place of Myth and Legend

Before the telescope was turned on the heavens by Galileo in 1609, there was only one Galaxy. The Galaxy. Galaxy referred to the Milky Way. Known for as long as anyone has looked upward, it's a part of the sky that appears to be a stream of milky light. Exactly what it was couldn't be known, of course. Myths gave it various forms, such as milk from a great godlike cow, or a path of the gods.

Galaxy comes from the Greek galax, the word for milky. Galaxy is a combining form. To our ears, it falsely suggests the sound of lacto, or the Latin for milk, but it's actually unrelated. To the Romans, the Milky Way was Via Lactea. Milky Way is a literal translation of that.

When Galileo turned his telescope on it, he was the first to see it as stars rather than as a milky cloudiness. The stars in it are so close together and so numerous that there's no way our eyes can make it out as stars without the resolving power of the telescope. The telescope not only magnifies the view, but improves the contrast we see, making it easier to see the individual stars by magnifying the spaces between them and allowing us to pick them out from the general glare.

The Galaxy as Nothing Special

From that time on, the Milky Way, or the Galaxy, became a name for an area of the sky with most of the stars in it. In the book Elements of Astronomy by Simon Newcomb, published in 1900, the terms "galaxy" and "Milky Way" do not even appear in the index. The Milky Way receives only one short mention in the book, describing Galileo's discovery. The 1886 book Recreations in Astronomy by H.W. Warren has "Milky Way" in the index with two citations, but "galaxy is absent. The greater of the two passages cited reads:
Every one has noticed the Milky Way. It seems like two irregular streams of compacted stars. It is not supposed they are necessarily nearer together than the stars in the sparse regions about the pole. But the 18,000,000 stars belonging to our system are arranged within a space represented by a flattened disk. If one hundred lights, three inches apart, are arranged on a hoop ten feet in diameter, they would be in a circle. Add a thousand or two more the same distance apart, filling up the centre, and extending a few inches on each side of the inner plane of the hoop: an eye in the centre, looking out toward the edge, would see a milky way of lights; looking out toward the sides or poles, would see comparatively few. It would seem as if this oblate spheroidal arrangement was the result of a revolution of all the suns composing the system.

Lessons in Astronomy by Chales A. Young, from 1896, contains one entry in the index under "Milky Way, the", and one under "Galaxy, the", both giving the same citation. The description given is as follows:
The Galaxy, or Milky Way.--This is a luminous belt of irregular width and outline, which surrounds the heavens nearly in a great circle. It is very different in brightness in different parts, and is marked here and there by dark bars and patches, which at night look like overlying clouds. For about a third of its length (between Cygnus and Scorpio) it is divided into two roughly parallel streams. The telescope shows it to be made up almost entirely of small stars from the eighth magnitude down; it contains, also, numerous star clusters, but very few true nebulae.

The galaxy intersects the ecliptic at two opposite points not far from the solstices, at an angle of nearly 60 degrees, the north of the "galactic pole" being, according to Herschel, in the constellation of Coma Berenices. As Herschel remarks,--
"The 'galactic plane' is to the sidereal universe much what the plane of the ecliptic is to the solar system,--a plane of ultimate reference, and the ground plane of the stellar system."

It further describes the distribution of the stars in the heavens as being non-uniform, but that with what is known can give some information about the structure of the Stellar Universe:
The great majority of the stars we see are included within a space having, roughly, the form of a rather thin, flat disc, like a watch, with a diameter eight or ten times as great as its thickness, our sun being not very far from its centre...As to the Milky Way itself, it is not certain whether the stars which compose it form a sort of thin, flat, continuous sheet, or whether they are arranged in a sort of ring with a comparitively empty space in the middle, where the sun is situated, not far from its centre.

Following this comes a section asking whether the stars form any sort of system, mentioning that it is unlnown whether gravitation operates between the stars and whether there might be some sort of orbital motion that defines the overall form of the Stellar Universe, with a concept called Maedler's Hypothesis being somewhat more likely, that there is motion about a common center of gravity. It goes further in naming Alcyone, in the Pleiades, as a star described as closest to that center and therefore the possible "central sun", but discards the idea as having no proof to sustain it.

Over all, the subject is treated lightly, though in great thoroughness for the books of the time. After two pages on the Stellar Universe, the book returns to the serious discussion of the solar system.

The Revolution

In these same books, in sections which are practically appendices to the important main matter of the nature and operation of stars and the solar system, there are brief mentions of nebulae, "clouds" in space. Among these are some unusual ones taking the form of spirals. The spirals go unmentioned in Newcomb's book. In Warren's book, they are only listed as one of many possible shapes of nebula:
"Nebulae are of all conceivable shapes--circular, annular, oval, lenticular, conical, spiral, snake-like, looped, and nameless."

Young's book takes advantage of the very latest work in photography and spectroscopy. It has a more extensive section on nebulas, stating that photography reveals features which, for example, reveal a regular annular structure in the Andromeda nebula. Conclusions formed by the new information are absent, however. There is only the excitement that comes with new information to be studied.

The 1923 book The Wonders of the Stars by Joseph McCabe is an exuberant popular book on astronomy that leaps into the subject of the spiral nebulas, however:
Some astronomers think that spiral nebulae may be stages in the formation of solar systems like ours. It is estimated that if two stars approached within a few million miles of each other they would raise such tides (analogous to the ocean-tides raised on the earth by the moon) of metal that a vast quantity would be shot out into space. We are imagining, remember, a volcanic outpour streaming thousands of millions of miles into space. If two such mighty streams were shot out opposite sides of a star, its gravitational power would cause them to wind round the central mass, and it is said the resulting structure would be like the spiral nebula in the photograph. The arms and the star would continue to whirl around, like a gigantic Catherine-wheel. The next stage would be that the matter contained in the spiral arms would begin to gather round the denser centres, and ultimately it would be all (except, perhaps, for a little residual matter, to make meteors) collected in a large number of smaller globes circulating around the star.

Even at this stage, however, questions appear. The rotation of the spiral nebulas has been observed, and questions about their size and distance from these measurements can not be answered, but at the very least some boundaries can be established. As mentioned in the McCabe book, what is known about the spirals would seem to make them too large for solar systems, as they were then understood.

The Island Universes

About the time of McCabe's book, astronomers were beginning to establish distances to these spiral nebulas. In Young's book, it was an open question whether they were part of the same system as the stars around us. In McCabe's book, he notes that some feel they are outside the system of stars but discounts the idea himself.

The controversy about the size of the Milky Way and its relationship to the spiral and other nebulas which appeared to be at exteme distances was known as "The Great Debate".

This work found that the distances to the spiral nebulas, and many others that were not of spiral form, were greater than those to any of the stars known in our "Stellar Universe." This placed them outside that universe and made them ambiguous objects, compared to those nebulas that had been established as being within the Stellar Universe.

The name "Island Universe" arose for these objects, though it was an abuse of the term "universe." They appeared to be islands of stars and nebulas that fell outside the main system of which we are part. The falsehood of our own system being the primary among them fell away quickly as measurements revealed the sizes of these "islands." Their extent was as great as that as the circle of stars about us in the Milky Way.

In 1932 Robert H. Baker revised the popular book Astronomy for Everybody written in 1902 by Simon Newcomb. He updated it with the vast quantity of new understanding that had arisen. It includes a new chapter titled "Galaxies."
In the description of the Milky Way we have noticed some of the star clouds, in particular, the great Sagittarius cloud whose center is 50,000 light-years away, and the somewhat smaller and nearer Scutum cloud. According to the view recently set forth by Shapley, these and other star clouds are galaxies, that is to say, vast assemblages of stars and nebulae. They average 10,000 light-years in diameter. Some are considerably smaller, while the largest are three or four times greater in diameter.

The galaxy of which our sun is a member is known as the local system...These star clouds are grouped nearly in one plane in the supergalaxy which we call the galactic system. For the past century and a half, astronomers have been trying to determine precisely the form and extent of this system whose principal feature, as we see it in projection in our skies, is the Milky Way.

At this point there was still uncertainty about where to draw the lines. Were the various star clouds that we now call the Milky Way Galaxy all part of one galaxy, or several galaxies in an interacting system? Were the external galaxies part of this system, or were they entirely independent?

Over time the consensus became that the external nebulas, the Island Universes, were full independent galaxies in their own right, and that the various star clouds around us in the near distance were different components of a single spiral structure like that seen in Andromeda and Triangulum.

The word galaxy became a general term for the "Island Universes" or assemblages of star clusters independent of our own. In spite of the fact that the word itself means "Milky Way", it was extended to include those structures in space like our own Milky Way, as well as describing the Milky Way itself.

The Spiral Path

The galaxy began as a thing in the sky. Unique, mysterious, and unexplained. It was an object of legend, where gods tread, that led from one storied place to another, with a story behind its unique existence. Then, with the telescope, it was seen to be nothing more than an aggregate of common objects. No longer was it a mystery. It was just a bunch of stars. Like pebbles in the aggregate of a path, their number was nothing of greatness, just a result of their proximity.

Then, with a closer look at the star clouds within the Milky Way, and anomalous objects outside it, it was found to be one of a number of immense associations of stars in our universe. As we dream of and seek other civilizations like our own, the galaxy, as its own mini-universe, has become a place of legend again. Where so many stars come together, we infer many planets. Where so many planets lie, there lie the greatest chances for other life like our own. New places for others with consciousness to arise and to experience their own epic sagas.

Once again, "galaxy" has become a place of myth and legend. In 1977 we were treated to the line "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..." Since then, the land of galaxies has only extended further and become more mysterious and colorful, thanks to the amazing images provided by our astronomers.

'Galaxy' has gone from naming a thing, to an area, to a span of stars that fills a small universe (by present standards) to a thing that is scattered in unimaginable plurality through a far, far larger universe. A universe that is once again large enough for stories of strange peoples and strange things that reflect our view of the vast unknown.

1 comment:

Unknown said...


I just wanted to let you know that I've included this post in the latest Scientia Pro Publica carnival now up over on my blog. Do drop by when you have a moment.