Stunning Celestial Art from the 1750 Astronomy Book That First Described the Spiral Shape of the Milky Way and Dared Imagine the Existence of Other Galaxies – Brain Pickings

by Joseph K. Clark

Thomas Wright (September 22, 1711–February 25, 1786) grew up with a passion for learning and a speech impediment that made the rural English schoolroom a gauntlet. When he set about educating himself at home, his father declared the boy mad for his mathematical passions and burned all the books his mother had bought him. Undeterred, Thomas found a mathematics tutor in a local astronomer, took free science classes at a local parish, then apprenticed himself to a London instrument-maker, falling deeper and deeper in love with astronomy and the quest for elemental truth. By nineteen, he had established a school of his own to teach mathematics and navigation. He would go on to build an observatory, describe the spiral shape of the Milky Way for the first time, declare himself “an enemy to the taking of anything for granted, merely because a person of reputed judgment has been heard to say it absolutely is so,” and become the first person to suggest that there are galaxies other than our own, nearly two centuries before Hubble staggered our understanding of the universe with the empirical proof.

Stunning Celestial

In 1750, Wright self-published his visionary and verbosely titled book An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, Founded upon the Laws of Nature, and Solving by Mathematical Principles the General Phaenomena of the Visible Creation, and Particularly the Via Lactea (public domain). He was also an architect and garden designer with his keen aesthetic sensibility — he commissioned “the best masters” to illustrate his theories in thirty-some scrumptious plates populated by comets, planets, and other celestial splendors observed and conjectured.

Only 118 copies of the book were printed, all for Wright’s patrons and private subscribers. (A delight to think that a long-ago astronomer sustained his work the way I do.) One eventually reached Immanuel Kant, who was especially captivated by Wright’s explanation of why the Milky Way appears to us the way it does — an optical effect owing to our particular position within the plane of the galaxy — and by the notion of multiple galaxies. Kant seized upon these ideas and developed them in a book he published anonymously five years later, drawing on Wright’s theories to conceive of his famous “island universes,” which influenced generations of astronomers all the way through Hubble and his epoch-making observational proof.

As Kant’s authorship was discovered, his celebrity subsumed these theories, which attributed to him. Wright and his book fell into obscurity until a polymathic French scientist married an American woman. Living in Philadelphia, he rediscovered it nearly a century later and published it at his own expense. He dedicated the book to “the American people,” feeling that they were in dire need of a reminder that “knowledge is power” and that “in our republic, as power is confided to the care of the people, they must be correctly informed of vital points, so that they may avoid vital errors.”

Bafflingly, the book was republished without the crucial and consummate illustrations — perhaps out of parsimony (this was the Panic of 1837, America’s first great economic depression), and perhaps in a clever marketing tactic, for the publisher’s introduction teased with the promise of a forthcoming separate folio containing only the illustrations. No record of such a publication survives, but I have restored these antique beauties from Wright’s original 1750 edition and made them available as prints and wearable artworks, benefiting the endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory.

Suspended halfway between the time of Kepler, who discovered his revolutionary laws of planetary motion while defending his mother in a witchcraft trial, and the time of Hubble — halfway between the age of superstition and the age of science — Wright, for all his visionary genius, was still trapped in the ideological monoculture of his time — a time that conceived of science as a handmaiden to theology tasked not with discovering the truth but with proving the perfection of a creator-god held as a postulate.

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