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The Question

(Submitted February 05, 1997)

How did the Milky Way gets its name ?

The Answer

On a clear night, out in the country away from the city lights, you will see a bright, but diffuse, band through the sky. It will make a complete arc overhead (actually it appears as a great circle on the sky with the earth as the center).

Next time you are out in the country, look at this band of light and think about how it looks. This was named by the Greeks as: "Galaxies Kuklos" or The Milky Circle. The Romans changed the name to "Via Lactea" or The Milky Road or as we now call it "The Milky Way."

However, it was not until the the middle of the 18th century that people first came up with the idea that The Milky Way was actually a galaxy of stars. And it was not until the 19th and 20th centuries that scientists understood that The Milky Way is just one of many such galaxies in the universe.

If you want a good book to read on the history of astronomy, try "Coming of Age in the Milky Way" by Timothy Ferris, c1988, Anchor Books, ISBN 0-385-26326-0

Thank you for being interested.

Jonathan Keohane
(for the Ask an Astrophysicist Team)

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