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A Finite View of Infinity

In the mid-eighteenth century, English mathematician and astronomer Thomas Wright (1711-1786) struggled to reconcile his personal religious views with the structure of the Universe revealed by recent astronomical research. In Wright's, An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe (1750), he presented a very early attempt to understand a large-scale infinite cosmos. Wright based his larger cosmology on religious belief and speculation, but still allowed that telescopic observation revealed our local Universe. 

In this lavishly illustrated book, Wright argued that the existence of God, an “infinite all-active Power,” logically led to belief in an infinite cosmos. God created the Universe we could view from Earth, and similar “creations” filled the “endless Immensity.” In Plate XXXI (above), “A Finite View of Infinity,” Wright visually maps this notion of multiple creations. A divine center dominates each of these spherical systems. Plate XXXII (below) is a sectional view of these spheres, with all-seeing eyes at the center of each sphere representing God’s supreme perfection and presence everywhere.

Thomas Wright, Plate XXXII in An Original Theory or new Hypothesis of the Universe. London, 1750 (QB42 .W7 1750). 

Thomas Wright, Plate XXXII in An Original Theory or new Hypothesis of the Universe. London, 1750 (QB42 .W7 1750). 

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who purposefully separated philosophy and science from religion, read about Wright’s theories in a German newspaper. Kant, likely not aware of Wright’s theology, combined Wright’s structural organization with Newtonian physics. Expanding on Wright’s theories, Kant further speculated that our solar system was part of a larger galaxy, and that nebulous stars were in fact separate galaxies similar to our own. These galaxies made up an evolving Universe infinite in time and space. Eventually, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, astronomers confirmed several aspects of Kant’s then-untested ideas. Through Kant, Wright has been credited with developing the idea of the Milky Way Galaxy, although Wright focused on a spherical system.

Wright’s An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe (London, 1750) is one of many cosmological texts in the Adler’s collection of over 3,000 rare books. Adler visitors can see the book on display in the exhibition Telescopes: Through the Looking Glass.

Jodi Lacy is an Archivist and Digital Projects Manager at the Adler Planetarium. 

 

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