Since ancient times, humans have been making images as a way to understand the cosmos. Our illustrations, maps, diagrams and paintings are a way of bringing the infinite into the realm of our senses, with the hope that, through picturing the heavens, we can understand how the universe works and our place in it.
This very human impulse is the subject of the fascinating new book Cosmigraphics by my guest Michael Benson. Michael’s book is a visual record, of how our understanding of the universe has evolved over the last 4000 years. In the book, we see Bronze Age depictions of moon and stars, 16th century paintings of the creation of the universe, and 21st century super-computer simulations of galaxy clusters. These images, and the dozens more that Michael unearthed in libraries and archives around the world, remind us that knowledge is always in flux, and that no picture of the universe is ever complete.
Recently, I got a chance to speak with Michael Benson about his new book. We talked about the history of astronomy, the changing relationship between artists and scientists, and Michael tells the story of an obscure English astronomer who he says should be as famous as Kepler, Newton, or Galileo.
pg. 39: In this illumination from a late work by the prolific medieval visionary writer, composer, and proto-feminist Hildegard von Bingen, the four seasons of a spherical Earth are represented. Although produced after her death in 1179, the illustration is thought to follow her original design. Knowledge of the spherical Earth dates back to the Greek philosophers of about the sixth century b.c., with Pythagoras said to have been among the first to describe it. By the eighth century a.d. and the early medieval period, the shape of the planet was well established. This is one of the most dramatic early representations of a spherical Earth, from Saint Hildegard’s last masterpiece, Liber divinorum operum (Book of Divine Works). Credit: State Library of Lucca
pg. 95: Lunar mountains, from Nasmyth and Carpenter’s book. Before spaceflight allowed actual reconnaissance of the moon, it was widely assumed that the surface was extremely rugged in appearance, as in these models. This was due to an optical illusion created by the extremes of dark and light that play across the moon, a body without an atmosphere, during each lunar day as observed by telescope from the Earth. In fact, a steady rain of micrometeorite impacts across more than four billion years has softened and rounded all the lunar mountains. There are no peaks like this on the moon. Credit: Courtesy the Wolbach Library, Harvard
pg. 148: In the second half of the sixteenth century, Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe did his part to dismantle Aristotelian ideas about an immutable universe beyond the orbit of the moon—in part by proving that comets passed directly through the supposedly crystalline spheres as easily as Dante and Beatrice did in The Divine Comedy. He had problems with the Copernican system, though, and in particular refused to accept anything other than the centrality and immovability of the Earth, which he termed “lazy.” Instead, he proposed an alternative that historian of science Thomas Kuhn called “precisely equivalent mathematically to Copernicus’s system.” In it, all the planets except for the Earth orbit the sun. The sun, however, orbits the Earth, with all its planets in tow. This depiction of Brahe’s mixed geocentric-heliocentric system is from Andreas Cellarius’s Harmonia macrocosmica (Cosmic Harmony). Tycho’s system had the political virtue of preserving the theological propriety of astronomers mindful of Catholic doctrine concerning the immovable Earth, but it had the side effect of shattering the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic crystalline spheres, because, as can be seen in the inset above, in the Tychonic system the orbit of Mars intersects that of the sun, and the sun’s sphere passes through that of Mercury and Venus, none of which would be possible with hard-shell spheres. Tycho’s “geo-heliocentric” system had numerous problems, and although it was accepted by a large number of seventeenth-century astronomers uncomfortable with Copernicus’s revolutionary reordering of the universe, it faded away under mounting evidence confirming a more total heliocentrism. Credit: Courtesy the U. of Michigan Library
pg 19:This revolutionary depiction of a black void prior to the light of creation, which predates and anticipates Russian Suprematist artist Kazimir Malevich’s famous painting Black Square on a White Ground by three hundred years, appears in English physician and cosmologist Robert Fludd’s book Utriusque cosmi, maioris scilicet et minoris, metaphysica, physica, atque technica historia (The Metaphysical, Physical, and Technical History of Two Worlds, the Macrocosm and the Microcosm). On each side of Fludd’s irregular square can be seen the words Et sic in infinitum, meaning “And so on to infinity.” It is the first in a series of images from that book depicting the creation of the universe. Credit: Courtesy of U. of Oklahoma History of Science collections
pg 73: 2000–1600 B.C.: Excavated illegally in 1999 in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, the extraordinary Nebra Sky Disc is considered both the first-known portable astronomical instrument and the oldest-known graphic depiction of celestial objects in human history. Made of a blue-green copper inset with lustrous gold, the twelve-inch-wide disc contains an arrangement of seven stars probably representing the Pleiades. They’re in between a crescent moon on the right and either the full moon or sun in the center. Two golden bands at the disc’s edge (one is missing) span eighty-two degrees, corresponding to the angle between sunset at the winter and summer solstices at the latitude where it was found. Credit: Wikimedia
pg. 168: Based on supercomputer simulations, the morphology and structure of the universe at exceedingly large scales can be seen in this still from the Hayden Planetarium show Dark Universe, directed by Carter Emmart. Here galaxy clusters are arranged along weblike filaments of dark matter that extend between nodes of particularly high mass concentrations. The bright knots represent clusters of thousands of galaxies. Vast voids can also be seen between the denser areas. The light-year distance of the diameter represented here is about four hundred megaparsecs. With a parsec constituting 3.26 million light-years, that’s more than 1.3 billion light-years across—or one-tenth the age of the Milky Way. To put that into perspective, the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old. Credit: Courtesy AMNH-Hayden Planetarium, from Dark Universe, directed by Carter Emmart, produced by Vivian Trakinski
pg. 220: The role of the Middle East in the history of astronomy can scarcely be exaggerated. Arab and Persian astronomers did far more than preserve the work of the Ancient Greeks while Europe went through centuries of medieval indifference. In 964, Persian astronomer Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi wrote his heavily illustrated, Arabic text Book of Fixed Stars. It combined his own astronomical research and that of the Arab and Persian worlds with Greek Alexandrine astronomer Claudius Ptolemy’s treatise the Almagest. It also contains the first recorded mention of two nearby galaxies: Andromeda and the Large Magellanic Cloud. This bizarre depiction of Gemini, the twins, is from the same fifteenth-century edition of al-Sufi’s book. The twin bright stars of Castor and Pollux can be seen at each head; in Greek mythology, when his twin brother, Castor, was killed, Pollux asked Zeus to share his immortality and keep them together forever. Zeus then placed them in the constellation Gemini for eternity. Credit: Forschungbibliothek Gotha
pg. 233: This plate from Andreas Cellarius’s Harmonia macrocosmica is one of four that present a new way of looking at the celestial spheres. In Durer’s southern sky and Apian’s northern one on pages
226 and 227 respectively, our vantage point is from the outside looking in—but there is no backdrop. Here, the unsigned engraver employed by Cellarius’s Amsterdam printer had a rare insight: If Earth is at the center of the starry sphere, and that crystalline sphere is seen from the outside, then Earth should be visible, too. Here, we see the southern sky and southern hemisphere together—a merger of celestial and terrestrial cartography. Credit: 1708 plates courtesy the U. of Michigan Library; 1660-61 edition color data courtesy Ton Lindenmann
pg. 258: In July 2008, London Old Masters dealer James Faber bought a remarkable book at auction in Munich. The bound manuscript was packed with 167 watercolor and gouache paintings, each illustrating a miraculous event. Faber noted that the last miracle described was in 1552, and commissioned a thorough analysis of its paper and materials. The results confirmed his hunch that what became known as the Augsburger Wunderzeichenbuch (Augsburg Miracles Book) in fact dated to the mid-sixteenth century, and was almost certainly made in Augsburg at the height of the Reformation. Approximately sixty of the paintings depict astronomical subjects, including eclipses, comets, and other celestial phenomena, all presented in a drily reportorial Old German.
The text reads: “In 1483, the locusts flew through the welsch land [Southern Europe], devastated the countryside around Brixen, and if Margrave Louis of Mantua had not prevented it, they would have destroyed the whole seed in Lombardy. He had them killed, burned and chased away. Afterwards, an eclipse of the sun was seen and then came a great dying, so that more than twenty thousand people died in Brixen and around thirty thousand died in Venice.” Credit: Courtesy Day & Faber
pg. 307: Very bright sun dogs can sometimes make it seem that the sun has been divided into three. In his treatise on meteorology, Aristotle wrote of a phenomenon in which “two mock suns rose with the sun and followed it all through the day until sunset.” But this painting from the Augsburger Wunderzeichenbuch stands in a class of its own, and could just as well depict the view from a planet orbiting multiple stars. The text reads: “In 1533, three suns shone simultaneously and equally strong, as if they had fiery clouds around themselves, and they stood over the city of Münster, as if the city and the houses were burning, as painted here.” Credit: Courtesy Day & Faber
pg. 297: Facing page and overleaf: The Great Comet of 1881 was not quite as globally sensational as the two earlier impressive nineteenth-century comets mentioned in this chapter, but as this print by Étienne Trouvelot demonstrates, it was still a sight to behold. Discovered by accomplished Australian amateur astronomer John Tebbutt on May 22, the comet became visible to northern hemisphere astronomers on June 22, with Trouvelot doing the drawings this print is based on only a couple days later, on the night of June 25–26. It was traveling on almost the exact same orbit as the Comet of 1807, and though it was determined not to be the same comet, the shared trajectory indicated an unknown link between the two. As with Donati’s Comet, the Great Comet of 1881 exhibited a complex, ever-shifting structure in its nucleus and coma, as can be seen here by its twin-lobed appearance.
Credit: Courtesy the U. of Michigan Library
pg 153: 1750: The first depiction of the Milky Way’s flattened-disc form in history. By the mid-eighteenth century, the stage was set for a significant epiphany about the building blocks of the cosmos. In 1750, English astronomer Thomas Wright published a book titled An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe. Influenced both by the shape of Saturn and of the solar system, Wright proposed that the Milky Way galaxy may be structured on one plane like a disc with a large central nucleus, as in the above mezzotint plate. He also came up with an alternative hypothesis: It could be in the form of a giant sphere. In this he not only arrived at the first general description in history of the form of spiral galaxies like our own (albeit without hitting on their spiral arms: instead Wright imagined rings of stars), he also conceived of the external appearance of elliptical galaxies—another common galaxy shape, many of which appear almost perfectly spherical. He then proceeded to argue that the ghostly blobs seen dotted across the night sky— shapes that had been taken for nebulae within our own Milky Way—were “myriads of . . . celestial mansions,” or galaxies like our own. In one book, published prior to the American Revolution, Wright blew prior cosmological schemes wide open, arriving at an almost contemporary picture of the universe. Credit: Courtesy the Wolbach Library, HarvardPlaylist
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