Seeing the Galactic Forest for the Trees

To solve a mystery, scientists often zoom in on it as close as they can, break the puzzling system down to its components, and analyze it piece by piece. Sometimes, comprehending a system requires just the opposite: pulling back to see the bigger picture. Sometimes that bigger picture is bigger than our galaxy, in which case, pulling back requires some clever investigation.

In the 1780s, William Herschel, an astronomer who had recently discovered Uranus, turned

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