My first really good view of a galaxy and the only one visible with the naked eye was in Scotland in 1987. We were sailing a beautiful 1930s motor yacht for my friend Martin (also the owner) up the east coast of England to the west coast of Scotland by way of the Caledonian canal.
He met me in Inverness and we went for our customary fish and chips ashore, then sat on a bench seat overlooking the sea and just looked up at the heavens. It was a beautiful clear night, pitch black, no moon and the stars were just amazing. His eyesight was always better than mine and as we looked up he said, “what’s that fuzzy patch over there near that W shaped constellation”, which, if I remember rightly, he knew was Cassiopeia.
It was Andromeda (M31) fuzzy yes, but quite clearly different to the surrounding stars. I’d never really seen it before; it is considered to be the furthest observable naked eye object.
The next day he appeared on board with a brand-new pair of Zeiss binoculars, “ I bought these for a better look”, he said. He was right, you could discern the elongated nebulous shape well enough, but that just left me wanting more and that meant buying a telescope to see more clearly its inherent structure, but also to search for more “island universes” further afield.
Some amateur astronomers are happy enough looking at the Moon, the planets, or any one of the myriad astronomical curiosities relatively close to hand. Galaxy hunters range much further out, lured beyond the Milky Way by wild cosmological theories. We’re also driven by a profound scepticism. Scientists tell us that “island universes” exist out there, and we are compelled to see them for ourselves. When I finally had a telescope powerful enough to resolve its shape, I had no doubts as to what it was.
Yet I understood how past observers could mistake Andromeda for one of the Milky Way’s many nebulae. It took William Herschel’s 18.7 inch telescope, built in the 1780s, to suggest that the Andromeda nebula could be visually resolved into stars. Another 140 years slipped past before Edwin Hubble used Cepheid variable stars to measure the immense distance, thus identifying Andromeda as a galaxy similar to our own.
Looking through a telescope is 50% vision and 50% imagination. The Hubble Space Telescope’s high resolution photos show countless galaxies out there, but that doesn’t make them any easier to comprehend. It’s almost impossible to grasp something 120,000 light-years across, containing a trillion solar masses, and found to be some 2.5million light years distant.
Since then I’ve observed the face on spiral M81, 11 million light-years away, the Pinwheel galaxy (M101) and the Whirlpool galaxy (M51) even further out. I love collecting old and new astronomy books. In The Soul of the Night by Chet Raymo, he says; “The night sky is the hunting ground of the mystic and the philosopher, the scientist and the theologian” Deep space is fertile ground for anyone drawn to abstractions. Every galaxy is one more piece of the jigsaw puzzle. Every new object is another clue to the great mystery of the universe.
When Emmanuel Kant first wrote about “island universes” in 1755, few people took him seriously. In the 1920s Edwin Hubble proved him right. Now we revel in the reality of hundreds of billions of galaxies stretching from here to the outermost limits of the visible universe. Deep space is where nature unfolds in all its glory and it’s all there for anyone to see with or without a telescope. I can think of few things which bring greater pleasure than contemplating the universe whilst eating really good quality fish and chips on a bench seat under a dark, dark sky.