The word galaxy derives from the Greek word galaxias meaning milky one, which was the ancient Greek term for the Milky Way that indistinct band of stars visible across the night sky in areas that don’t suffer from too much light pollution. Today galaxy is used as the general term for the very large groups of stars scattered around the universe. Current estimates of the total number of galaxies range from 2×1011 to 2×1012 or even more. Confronted by these vast numbers it is oft easy to forget that less than one hundred years ago we still thought that our galaxy, the Milky Way Galaxy, was the entire universe. This changed on 1 January 1925 when H.N. Russell read a paper by Edwin Hubble to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which established that spiral nebulae were in fact separate galaxies. The path through the history of astronomy leading up to that epoch defining paper in 1925 goes back almost one thousand years and in what follows I shall briefly outline some of the important stations, nearly all of which concern our nearest galactic neighbour Andromeda, along that path.
The word nebula comes from the Latin and means a cloud, mist, fog, smoke, vapour, exhalation, as you can see the definition is fairly nebulous. In astronomy it can be traced back to Ptolemaeus’ Mathēmatikē Syntaxis or as it is more commonly known The Almagest. In this founding work of Western astronomy Ptolemaeus lists a total of six astronomical nebulae without giving them any great attention. All of Ptolemaeus’ nebulae were in fact indistinct star clusters too far away to be resolved with the naked eye. The first so-to-speak true nebula, the Andromeda nebula, was recorded by the Persian astronomer Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi, usually just referred to as Al Sufi, in his Book of Fixed Stars (Arabic: kitab suwar al-kawakib) around 964 CE. He describes and illustrated the Andromeda nebula as a little cloud before the mouth of the Arabic constellation Fish.
Amongst his other early telescopic observations Galileo showed that the Ptolemaic nebulae resolved into many unseen stars when viewed through the telescope. In 1612, it was, however, Galileo’s telescopic rival, Simon Marius who first turned his telescope on the Andromeda nebula and saw that it didn’t resolve into stars when viewed through his telescopic lenses. In his Mundus Iovialis (1614) Marius described what he saw as follows:
Among them the first is that with the spy-glass, from 15 December 1612 I discovered and observed a fixed star with a certain wonderful shape that I cannot find in the entire heavens. It is near the third and northernmost [star] in the belt of Andromeda. Without the instrument the same is seen as some sort of little cloud; and with the instrument no distinct stars are seen as in the nebular star in Cancer and other nebular stars, but rather only white rays, which the closer to the centre the brighter they come out; in the centre there is a dull and pale light; and its diameter is about a quarter of a degree. About the same brilliance appears when a bright candle is observed through a clear lantern from a long distance.
The research into nebulae came of age first in the eighteenth century with the work of the French comet hunter Charles Messier (1730–1817). In order to make it easier for comet hunters to distinguish potential comet sightings from other indistinct and nebulous object in the night sky, Messier began to compile a catalogue of the positions and appearance of all such objects that he detected during his nightly vigils. His work, the final version of which was published in 1781 and is now known as the Messier Catalogue, contains a list of 110 Messier objects, in his time nebulae and star clusters. The Messier objects are now known to be 39 galaxies, 5 planetary nebulae, 7 other types of nebulae and 55 star clusters. The Andromeda nebula, the discovery of which Messier, ignorant of Al Sufi’s book, falsely attributes to Marius, is Messier object M31.
Although Messier’s catalogue was compiled to assist comet hunters in differentiating potential comets from other faint celestial objects it is usually regarded as an early example of so-called deep sky astronomy; that is the study of objects well outside the solar system. The man who first practiced deep sky astronomy systematically was William Herschel, who together with his sister Caroline, methodically map the heavens quadrant for quadrant recording with his 20 foot reflecting telescope all of the non-stellar objects he could find. Caroline and he recorded 2400 nebulae in three catalogues.
They categorised the objects that they recorded into eight classes: (I) bright nebulae, (II) faint nebulae, (III) very faint nebulae, (IV) planetary nebulae, (V) very large nebulae, (VI) very compressed and rich clusters of stars, (VII) compressed clusters of small and large [faint and bright] stars and (VIII) coarsely scattered clusters of stars. Extended by his son and later John Dreyer, Herschel’s catalogue became the New General Catalogue (NGC) of 7840 deep sky objects in 1888. The NGC numbering is still used for most of the objects recorded therein. In 1785 Herschel observed a faint reddish hue in the core region of Andromeda. He believed Andromeda to be the nearest of all the great nebula.
In 1750 the English astronomer Thomas Wright (1711–1786) published his An Original Theory on New Hypothesis of the Universe in which he was the first to correctly describe the shape of the Milky Way Galaxy. He also speculated that the faint nebulae where in fact distant galaxies. However, his very perceptive thoughts remained speculations that he was unable to verify.
Interestingly his speculations were taken up by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) and further developed in his anonymously published Allgemeine Naturgeschichte und Theorie des Himmels (Universal Natural History and Theory of Heaven) (1755). At the time neither Wright’s nor Kant’s theories received much credence but with hindsight both have been praised for their perceptiveness.
In 1850, William Parsons, using the largest reflecting telescope constructed in the nineteenth century the Leviathan of Parsonstown, was able to identify the spiral structure of the Andromeda nebula for the first time. This was just one of a series of spiral nebula, in reality galaxies, that he was able to identify.
In 1864 William Huggins, a pioneer in stellar spectroscopy, noted that the spectrum of Andromeda differs from that of a gaseous nebula. The spectrum, as observed by Huggins, had the same characteristics as the spectrum of individual stars leading he to conclude that Andromeda was in fact stellar in nature.
We have already come a long way from Al Sufi’s first record of a small cloud. In 1887, Isaac Roberts, who thought that spiral nebula were solar systems in the process of forming, took the first-ever photograph of Andromeda.
In 1912 the American astronomer, Vesto Slipher, measured the rotational velocity of Andromeda using spectroscopy at 300kilometres per second the highest yet measured velocity.
In 1917 Heber Curtis observed a nova in Andromeda and discovered eleven more in the photographic record. These were on average ten magnitudes weaker that others observed in the heavens. Based in this data he estimated that Andromeda was 500,000 light-years distant. Curtis now proposed the island universes hypothesis i.e. spiral nebulae are actually independent galaxies.
On 26 April 1920 Heber Curtis and Harlow Shapley held the so-called great debate at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History on the nature of spiral nebulae. Curtis argued that they were distant independent galaxies, Shapley that they were much smaller and much nearly and thus within the Milky Way galaxy, which was the entire universe. This debate raised the question to the priority question in astronomy.
In 1922 Ernst Öpik measured the distance of Andromeda using the velocity of stars. His estimate was 1,500,00 light-years.
As I said in the opening paragraph Edwin Hubble finally settled the mater when he measured the distance of Andromeda using Cepheid variable stars and proved conclusively that Andromeda was not a nebula inside the Milky Way but a separate galaxy. With this result the age of galactic astronomy was born.
Of interest the method of determining distances using Cepheids was developed by Henrietta Swan Leavitt, one of the Harvard computers, investigating thousands of variable stars in the Magellanic Clouds in 1908; she published her results in 1912.
The story of Andromeda’s historical journey from Al Sufi’s nebula to Curtis’ galaxy illustrates very nicely how scientific knowledge grows over time with generations of researchers with differing interests and motivations contributing directly and indirectly to that growth.
Post amended 11 January 2018