Ever since Galileo first turned a telescope to the sky in 1609, astronomers had known that the Milky Way was made of stars, but they were unsure how to reconcile these distant and apparently crowded stars with the brighter stars that we can pick out with the naked eye.
By the start of the 20th Century, however, enough strands of evidence had come together to show that the band of the Milky Way is just an edge-on view of the distant stars that make up our home Galaxy. The discovery of millions of other galaxies spread throughout space also helped astronomers to gain a perspective on our own.
So how should we understand our own galaxy today? Is it like or unlike the other galaxies in the universe? How might we find out more in the near future?
Heather Couper was the Gresham Professor of Astronomy between 1993 and 1996.
After studying Astrophysics at Oxford University, Professor Couper ran the Greenwich Planetarium, and later became President of the British Astronomical Association and Gresham Professor of Astronomy. After presenting two TV series, she and two colleagues set up Pioneer Productions, now one of the leading factual TV companies in the UK. She was the producer of Universe and of the international award-winning programme Electric Skies.
On 2 June 1999, asteroid 3922 Heather was named in her honour.
At the time of her appointment to the Gresham Professorship in 1993, she wrote the following:
How did the universe being? Is there life elsewhere? What's a black hole? Every day, I'm asked questions like this - questions ostensibly about astronomy, but which serve as marvellous springboards into all the other sciences. Because of this, I've always wanted a platform where I could address the "top twenty" questions about the Universe. But how - and where? Broadcasting? Writing? Too remote. But face-to-face lecturing? Absolutely. That's why I'm delighted to have been appointed Gresham Professor of Astronomy, in order to have the opportunity, in Sir Thomas Gresham's words, to explain - as best I can - the "new learning" in the field of the sciences.
All of Professor Couper's lectures can be found here.