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As I understand it, until very recently (the early 20th century), people assumed that our galaxy was the only one in existence - basically, up to that point, the words "galaxy" and "universe" were synonymous. And if I'm not mistaken, it was Edwin Hubble who finally proved that the universe is actually far bigger than we had ever imagined. We gradually discovered more and more galaxies, and at present count (or at least estimate), the Milky Way is one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in an unimaginably large (yet finite) universe.

Did any fictional works anticipate this state of affairs? That is to say, did any authors, prior to Hubble's discovery, suggest that the universe contained more than one galaxy?


Note: The ancients came up with the idea of a "Galaxy", but the concept was quite different from our modern understanding of the term. The word galaxy is actually based on the Latin and Greek words for "milky" (hence the name of our own galaxy, "the Milky Way"), and referred to the appearance of the milky band of light that stretched across the night sky, before the invention of electrical lightning ruined the sky and made this band of light invisible from most places on the planet. The ancients didn't know what the milky band of light was, and they certainly didn't know it was an outer arm of a spiral galaxy.

Galaxy etymology:

late Middle English (originally referring to the Milky Way): via Old French from medieval Latin galaxia, from Greek galaxias (kuklos ) ‘milky (vault),’ from gala, galakt- ‘milk.’

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    Hehe - I was just writing up an answer that dealt with the ancient idea ;) – Often Right Jun 25 '15 at 4:38
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    While the observable universe is undoubtly finite, there is no consensus that the universe as a whole is finite (or infinite). – PlasmaHH Jun 25 '15 at 8:00
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    The word galaxy is actually based on a Latin word... Greek, not Latin – hindmost Jun 25 '15 at 8:37
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    @hindmost - both. Question updated to reflect this. – Wad Cheber stands with Monica Jun 25 '15 at 8:44
  • I live on the outskirts of a large city. On a cloudless night I can clearly see what appears to be a faint band of unmoving cloud, exactly coinciding with where the majority of the stars are. This is the Milky Way. If I travel into the heart of the city I can no longer see most stars. If you can see hundreds of stars where you are and it's a clear night you should be able to make out the Milky Way too. The Milky Way is only imperceptible from the brightest spots at night, certainly not most places on Earth. – CJ Dennis Jun 25 '15 at 13:07
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According to my memory and Wikipedia, Thomas Wright in 1750 and Immanuel Kant in 1755 described the Milky Way as a vast group of stars and speculated that some of the nebula, especially spiral ones, were other such star groups or "island universes".

Wikipedia on Galaxy

This speculation had varying acceptance and rejection until proven in the 1920s.

Edmond "World Wrecker" Hamilton started his Interstellar Patrol series in 1928, and in Outside the Universe (1929) another galaxy invaded our galaxy.

E.E. Smith's Skylark Three (1930) ended with a chase far beyond our galaxy, and Skylark of Valeron (1934-1935) traveled to distances of probably billions of light years.

As I dimly remember, William Hope Hodgson's The house on the Borderland (1908) had a character think about the possibility of other galaxies despite living generations before the publication date of 1908. As a kid I thought that was impressively, or perhaps impossibly, early of the character. And the publication date was over a decade before the proof of external galaxies.

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  • Interesting. I'm actually a huge fan of Kant's philosophical work, but I know nothing about his cosmological work. +1 – Wad Cheber stands with Monica Jun 25 '15 at 5:35
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    The first and last part of this post seem quite good, but I'm confused by the middle part: if that was proven in the 20s, what's the point of also quoting other works that area likely ('28 and '29) and certain ('30) to be published after the fact? – o0'. Jun 25 '15 at 10:32
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    @Lohoris The Wikipedia page cites this article by Hubble, apparently published in 1929. Giving a couple of years for the discovery to trickle down to general knowledge, perhaps the 1929 and '30 works might not have been known to them. – muru Jun 25 '15 at 14:16
  • Lohoris - Those are the earliest science fiction/fantasy stories I remember that mentioned the existence of other galaxies. I mentioned Outside the Universe and Skylark Three because they were the earliest strictly science fiction stories which mentioned other galaxies as facts of science. If nobody can remember earlier stories the answer will have to be that the first fictional other galaxies were later than the proof of other galaxies, though House on the Borderland mentioned the possibility earlier. – M. A. Golding Jun 26 '15 at 5:14
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First a bit of historical background. I see two particular years as being crucial to this question:

1917:

Heber Curtis observed nova S Andromedae within the "Great Andromeda Nebula" (as the Andromeda Galaxy, Messier object M31, was then known). [...] He was able to come up with a distance estimate of 150,000 parsecs. He became a proponent of the so-called "island universes" hypothesis, which holds that spiral nebulae are actually independent galaxies

1922:

Using the new 100 inch Mt. Wilson telescope, Edwin Hubble was able to resolve the outer parts of some spiral nebulae as collections of individual stars and identified some Cepheid variables, thus allowing him to estimate the distance to the nebulae: they were far too distant to be part of the Milky Way

(Source)

I would consider any works of science-fiction which involved a galaxy other than our own as satisfying the demands of the question, however after going through the entries in this article, none of the works proposing foreign galaxies were written prior to either of these dates. In fact, the earliest reference to a 'galaxy' in the form that you're referring to in science-fiction works that I can find is Islands of Space (first published in the Spring of 1931 Amazing Stories Quarterly) (Kudos Eike Pierstorff). So, from my research at least, it seems that no: Sci-Fi did not anticipate this concept of multiple galaxies existing in the universe

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    +1 Great answer. I always thought Hubble was the first to propose the idea. Sorry, Mr. Curtis. – Wad Cheber stands with Monica Jun 25 '15 at 5:01
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    Island of space is mentioned in the article as being published in 1956, however it was first serialized in 1931 (in Amazing Stories I think), so it slightly precedes Star Maker (and the title consciously or inadvertenly alludes to Kants Phrase "Island Universe", although in Kants time other galaxies were a matter of speculation). – Eike Pierstorff Jun 25 '15 at 5:15

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