Guest post by John Donor.
Astronomers have always been fond of the Milky Way, after all, it is our home. But it’s more than just our home, it’s also our most important laboratory for studying galaxy evolution. We can study the Milky Way in tremendous detail, compared to any other galaxy. So what does our host galaxy tell us about galaxy evolution?
Let’s start at the very beginning (as Julie Andrews said, “a very good place to start”). I literally mean the very beginning: the Big Bang. While the “bang” itself was perhaps the most exciting event in cosmic history, the aftermath of the Big Bang was really rather dull. After the Universe calmed down a bit, all of existence was just endless clouds of gas; Hydrogen and Helium gas to be precise. No stars. No galaxies. Certainly no planets or life.
But fortunately this boring state of affairs quickly corrected itself. As gravity took over, gas began to collect into what would become galaxies. As the gas collected, it slowly became dense enough to form the first stars. Stars are very exciting. In their hot, dense cores, they fuse Hydrogen and Helium into the heavier elements (Carbon, Oxygen, Iron, ...