In this introduction to a magnificently illustrated new book, DR PAUL MURDIN ponders our place in the universe and our fascination with it
THE STUDY of cosmology and exoplanets continue an exploration of humans’ own place in the universe that has lasted for at least 17,000 years.
Universe: Exploring the Astronomical World reflects all aspects of that exploration, from the mystical and religious to the purely scientific, the aesthetic, the symbolic and even the psychological.
It features works by both outstanding figures from the history of science and leading historic and contemporary artists. It also shows that astronomy has been part of everyday life for centuries, from medieval almanacs and calendars to 19th-century playing cards, board games and wall hangings.
Although the images come from a wide range of sources, they are all in their own way records of the same quest — that of understanding the heavens and what they tell us about ourselves.
For the vast majority of history, humans had no view of space other than what they could see with the naked eye and even the first telescopes probed only the neighbouring heavenly objects. Objects from the solar system — the Sun, Moon, planets, asteroids and comets — therefore make up the bulk of the images in this book.
Nevertheless, the larger galactic and cosmological scale is also well represented, particularly by the remarkable revelations from the last 40 or so years of star formation and destruction in deep space.
With their fundamentally real but dramatically exaggerated colourisation, many images from the Hubble Space Telescope, such as the renowned Pillars of Creation are as visually striking and aesthetically beautiful as works of art.
Overall, indeed, the images collected in Universe: Exploring the Astronomical World strongly contradict the idea that there is a division between “scientific” and “artistic” depictions of space.
Just as tomb paintings by ancient Egyptian artists included aesthetic details in a depiction of the night sky intended to illustrate the structure of their religious beliefs and medieval depictions of recorded portentous comets glow in dramatic tones of gold and red, so early and modern astronomical photographs are often as visually arresting as they are scientifically revealing.
All the works included in the book succeed in making what is not always visible both visible and memorable and yet, while visual images can help to make astronomical ideas accessible, it is not always guaranteed that they will make them comprehensible.
At heart, some of the ideas related to astronomy — the size, age, and sheer multiplicity of space — still lie at the limit or beyond the grasp of human understanding, just as did the apparent motion of the Sun and the shape of the stars for our ancestors millennia ago.
The fact that we understand more now than in the past is not simply the result of technological advances, although clearly developments in telescopes, spacecraft and astrophotography have been key.
As the books shows, there has also been a change in humans’ emotional response to the universe. As we have learned more about it physically, we have also come to interpret it in different ways.
For that reason, space has long fascinated scientists, astronomers
and visual artists and it remains a recurring subject in our society and culture.
Many of the images prove that as astronomical research continues, the close relationship between the scientific and the artistic will remain as close as it has been for the last 17,000 years.
n Dr Paul Murdin is a senior fellow emeritus at the Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge University. This article is extracted from his introduction to Universe: Exploring the Astronomical World, published by Phaidon, price £39.95.