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Thomas Wright

September 21, 2011

The Milky Way vaults high across the sky as night falls. It arches from teapot-shaped Sagittarius in the south, through the Northern Cross high overhead, to W-shaped Cassiopeia in the northeast.

Its milky glow is the combined light of millions of stars in the disk of our home galaxy — a layout first proposed by a man who was born 300 years ago today.

Thomas Wright was born in the English village of Byer’s Green. He learned math and astronomy, and established his own school to teach math and navigation. He became an astronomer and architect, and designed grand gardens. He later moved to London, where he tutored the wives and daughters of the rich and titled.

While there, Wright published a book on astronomy. He proposed that the Milky Way was actually a flat layer of stars, with our solar system immersed inside it. So as we look into the night sky, it’s like we’re in the middle of a forest, with trees spread out in a relatively flat plane around us.

Wright also proposed that the puffy motes of matter known as nebulae were separate galaxies of stars like the Milky Way.

Both ideas were brand new — and absolutely right. But few other astronomers saw his book. One who did was Immanuel Kant, a German who developed the idea of the Milky Way more fully. Today, in fact, Kant is often considered the first to describe the Milky Way as a disk of stars. But it’s an idea he picked up from Thomas Wright — the man who gave us the Milky Way galaxy.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2011


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