Charlie Wood in Quanta:
When the Khoisan hunter-gatherers of sub-Saharan Africa gazed upon the meandering trail of stars and dust that split the night sky, they saw the embers of a campfire. Polynesian sailors perceived a cloud-eating shark. The ancient Greeks saw a stream of milk, gala, which would eventually give rise to the modern term “galaxy.”
In the 20th century, astronomers discovered that our silver river is just one piece of a vast island of stars, and they penned their own galactic origin story. In the simplest telling, it held that our Milky Way galaxy came together nearly 14 billion years ago when enormous clouds of gas and dust coalesced under the force of gravity. Over time, two structures emerged: first, a vast spherical “halo,” and later, a dense, bright disk. Billions of years after that, our own solar system spun into being inside this disk, so that when we look out at night, we see spilt milk — an edge-on view of the disk splashed across the sky.
Yet over the past two years, researchers have rewritten nearly every major chapter of the galaxy’s history. What happened? They got better data.