Jan 202015
 
Figure 1.  “Perseus and Andromeda” by Lord Frederic Leighton. Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. At Google Cultural Institute.

Figure 1. “Perseus and Andromeda” by Lord Frederic Leighton. Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. At Google Cultural Institute.

Figure 2.  Illustration of the expected collision between the Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy.  (http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2012/20/image/a/format/web_print/).

Figure 2. Illustration of the expected collision between the Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy. (http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2012/20/image/a/format/web_print/).

In Greek mythology, Andromeda, the daughter of Cepheus and Cassiopeia, was stripped and chained to a rock, only to be saved from certain death in the claws of a sea monster by Perseus (Figure 1 shows a wonderful depiction of the myth by Lord Frederic Leighton).

In the northern sky, a constellation is named Andromeda, and it contains the galaxy M31 (so cataloged by astronomer Charles Messier on August 3rd, 1764), commonly known as the Andromeda galaxy.  At a distance of 2.5 million light years, the Andromeda galaxy is next door in astronomical terms. Its mass is only about twice that of the Milky Way, making the two galaxies if not quite twins, then close sisters.

By measuring very precisely the motion of Andromeda relative to the Milky Way, astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope were able to determine in 2012 that the Milky Way and Andromeda are destined for a head-on collision in about 4 billion years. About two billion years later, the two sister spiral galaxies will completely merge, most probably producing an elliptical galaxy. While solar system will not be destroyed during the collision, it is very likely that it will be flung into a new region of the merged galaxy.

Figure 2 is a photo illustration of what the night sky may look like as the two galaxies will be on their way to that fateful encounter. This view was inspired by detailed computer modeling of the future collision.

Recently, astronomers combined data from two large surveys to discover that, like its mythological namesake, Andromeda has experienced a rather violent history. One of the surveys (SPLASH) used the Keck telescope to measure the radial (in our direction) velocities of more than 10,000 stars. The other survey (the Panchromatic Hubble Andromeda Treasury; PHAT) used the sharp vision of the Hubble Space Telescope to produce an unprecedented, high-definition image of a part of Andromeda (see Figure 3 and the
Zoom into M31 video on the web page of STScI News Release Number: STScI-2015-02).

Figure 3.  A high-definition panoramic view of a part of the Andromeda galaxy. A product of the Panchromatic Hubble Andromeda Treasury (PHAT) program.  (Credit: NASA, ESA, J. Dalcanton, B.F. Williams, and L.C. Johnson [University of Washington], the PHAT team, and R. Gendler; http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2015/02/image/a/format/ xlarge_web/.)

Figure 3. A high-definition panoramic view of a part of the Andromeda galaxy. A product of the Panchromatic Hubble Andromeda Treasury (PHAT) program. (Credit: NASA, ESA, J. Dalcanton, B.F. Williams, and L.C. Johnson [University of Washington], the PHAT team, and R. Gendler; http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2015/02/image/a/format/ xlarge_web/.)

The two sets of observations revealed an intriguing distinction between young and old stars in Andromeda. While we normally associate youth with rebellion, and old age with discipline, the youngest stars were found to rotate in an orderly fashion around Andromeda’s center, while the older stars displayed a less ordered, more chaotic motion.

Possible explanations for these observations include a series of past bombardments of Andromeda by a number of smaller satellite galaxies, and an evolution of Andromeda’s disk from a more puffed-up configuration to a thinner one. Either way, it appears that our sister galaxy may have had a rougher past than the Milky Way. This fascinating object is just about the most distant thing we can see in the night’s sky with the naked eye.

Nov 202014
 
Figure 1.  The five-pointed star, a pentagram.

Figure 1. The five-pointed star, a pentagram.

Humans have been fascinated by stars—those luminous points of light embedded in the night’s darkness—for millennia.  Long before any understanding of their scientific significance emerged, the stars’ association with the heavens has turned them into symbols of the warfare between light, or spirit, and darkness, or material forces.  The five-pointed star (the pentagram) in particular (Figure 1), with its symbolic representation of the twinkling of stars, has become an icon of the human microcosm.

When did the five-pointed star first appear?  And what has transformed it into such a popular symbol?  While we cannot be certain about the answers to these questions, some of the examples of historical facts are truly fascinating.  In particular, the relation between the pentagram and the celebrated “Golden Ratio,” has motivated a number of historians of mathematics to investigate the topic quite thoroughly.

A pentagram appears on a jar dated to 3100 BCE, found north of Thebes in Egypt.  The incision appears to have been done in one continuous motion, and the fact that such a feat can be easily achieved for the five-pointed star may have been one of the initial sources of attraction of this figure.  As an Egyptian hieroglyph, a pentagram enclosed in a circle meant the netherworld—the underworld of the dead.

Interestingly, pentagrams from the same period were found in Mesopotamia.  Those included a five-pointed star on a tablet from Uruk, dated to about 3200 BCE; a design on a vase dated to 3000 BCE from Jemdet Nasr; and another design in spindle whorl from the same time, also from Jemdet Nasr.

In Sumarian and Akkadian cuneiform texts, the meaning of the five-pointed star was the “regions of the inhabited world.”  Thus, we can find it in sentences such as: “which are not the regions warmed by the brightness of your light.”

Figure 2.  A sketch of the flint scraper from Tell Esdar in the Israeli Negev desert, depicting a pentagram.

Figure 2. A sketch of the flint scraper from Tell Esdar in the Israeli Negev desert, depicting a pentagram.

At Tell Esdar, in the Israeli Negev desert, archaeologists found a flint scraper with a pentagram (Figure 2), dated to the Chalcolithic period (4500–3100 BCE). This again appears to be a rapidly executed graffiti figure.

Figure 3.  A speculative association between the pentagram and Hygeia, the Greek goddess of health, was suggested in 1934 by historian A. de la Fuÿe.

Figure 3. A speculative association between the pentagram and Hygeia, the Greek goddess of health, was suggested in 1934 by historian A. de la Fuÿe.

The group of people that truly elevated the five-pointed star to the status of a more universal symbol was composed of the followers of the Greek mathematician Pythagoras.  Through Aristotle we learned that they “applied themselves to mathematics, and were the first to develop this science; and through studying it they came to believe that its principles are the principles of everything.”  Even though the Pythagoreans had a rather mystic understanding of reality, there is no doubt that we can see here the roots of mathematical modeling of the universe and its workings.  The second century rhetorician Lucian tells us that the pentagram “was a recognition-symbol amongst the Pythagoreans, and they used it in their letters.”  He also adds that: “Indeed the pentagram, the triple intersecting triangle which they used as a symbol of their sect, they called ‘Health.’”  Why did they choose the pentagram, and what is its relation to health?  Historian A. de la Fuÿe speculated that the pentagram could have originally been an anthropomorphic symbol of Hygeia, the Greek goddess of health (Figure 3).  While the connection appears tenuous, it shows the level of interest that the five-pointed star has generated over the years.

To conclude, the allure of the heavens has combined with mathematics and historical mythology to produce one of the most common symbols of modern times.  Five-pointed stars appear today on the flags of no fewer than sixty nations, and on innumerable commercial logos.  They represent authority (as in “five-star” generals) and excellence (as in “five-star” hotels).  Our understanding of the processes that make real stars shine has not taken anything away from the attraction of the five-pointed star.  Interestingly, telescope images of real stars usually show spikes. Those are not intrinsic to the stars, but rather are created by diffraction effects within the telescope’s optics. For Hubble, for instance, as for many other telescopes, there are four spikes, but in the case of the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope there will be six.

Oct 222014
 
Figure 1.  “Newton” by William Blake. Original is in the collection of Tate Britain. The image is in the Public Domain (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newton_(Blake)#mediaviewer/File:Newton-WilliamBlake.jpg).

Figure 1. “Newton” by William Blake. Original is in the collection of Tate Britain. The image is in the Public Domain (http://en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/Newton_(Blake)#mediaviewer/File:Newton-WilliamBlake.jpg).

Figure 2.  “The Ancient of Days” by William Blake. Originally published in 1794, as a frontispiece to “Europe a Prophecy.”  Image is in the Public Domain(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ancient_of_Days#mediaviewer/File:Europe_a_Prophecy_copy_K_plate_01.jpg).

Figure 2. “The Ancient of Days” by William Blake. Originally published in 1794, as a frontispiece to “Europe a Prophecy.” Image is in the Public Domain (https://en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/The_Ancient_of_Days #mediaviewer/File:Europe_a_ Prophecy_copy_K_plate_01.jpg).

Between 1795 and 1805, the mystic poet, painter and printmaker William Blake produced a print that he entitled “Newton” (Figure 1). Just like the mythological figure Urizen, that to Blake portrayed law and reason in his piece “The Ancient of Days” (Figure 2), Blake’s Newton holds a compass.  To Blake, this compass represented an instrument that clips the wings of imagination.  Blake was a strong opponent to some of the aspects of the movement of the Enlightenment and its attempts to explain nature and all phenomena within it.  In his view, Newton and the empiricist philosophers Francis Bacon and John Locke all conspired “to unweave the rainbow.”  You’ll notice that in the print “Newton,” the scroll on which Newton draws his diagrams appears to emanate from Newton’s mouth.  Newton himself is so absorbed in his diagrams that he seems to be blind to the beautifully complex rock behind him, which probably symbolizes the creative, artistic world.  Blake went so far as to declare:

“Art is the tree of life.
Science is the tree of death.”

Somewhat similar sentiments were expressed by Blake’s contemporary, the young poet John Keats, who wrote:

“Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine—
Unweave a rainbow…”

Figure 3.  A Hubble image of the interacting galaxies Arp 273, dubbed “The Rose”  (http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2011/11/image/a/format/web_print/).

Figure 3. A Hubble image of the interacting galaxies Arp 273, dubbed “The Rose” (http://hubblesite.org/ newscenter/archive/releases/2011/11/image/a/format/web_print/).

In my humble opinion, the views of both Blake and Keats were grossly misguided.  Scientists are not blind to the beauty of the world.  When I see an image such as the one taken by the Hubble Space Telescope that was dubbed “The Rose” (Figure 3), I believe that I am as capable to appreciate its exquisitely complex elegance as any artist.  The fact that I also happen to know that this image represents two interacting galaxies, where the gravitational pull of each one of them is affecting the other, does not subtract anything from my ability to perceive its beauty.  The additional knowledge that our own Milky Way galaxy is going to collide in a similar fashion with the Andromeda galaxy (in about 4 billion years; based on other Hubble observations), only adds to the emotional impact of this image.  Furthermore, the fact that we know that galaxies evolve through a series of such collisions and mergers puts this image into a broad cosmic perspective.

Similarly, Newton’s understanding of how the rainbow is formed did not take anything away from the rainbow’s aesthetic attractiveness; it only added a level of depth to its significance. The best example of the fusion of art and science is, of course, provided by the phenomenal work of Leonardo da Vinci (see e.g., https://blogs.stsci.edu/livio/2013/10/08/the-da-vinci-astronomy/).

Jul 082014
 
Figure 1.  A photograph entitled “Hypatia,” by the nineteenth century pioneering photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.   The model is Marie Spartali. (Image in the Public Domain at http://en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/Hypatia#mediaviewer/File: Hypatia,_by_Julia_Margaret_Cameron.jpg)

Figure 1. A photograph entitled “Hypatia,” by the nineteenth century pioneering photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. The model is Marie Spartali. (Image in the Public Domain at http://en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/Hypatia#mediaviewer/File: Hypatia,_by_Julia_Margaret_Cameron.jpg)

In 2009, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) held its General Assembly in Rio de Janeiro.  Of the 2109 participants, 667 (or 31.6%) were women.  Indeed, in recent years, the fraction of women among astronomers is continuously growing.  Who, however, is considered to have been the first female astronomer?  Most would agree that this title belongs to Hypatia of Alexandria (c. 350–415 CE; Figure 1), a remarkable philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer.

Unfortunately, apart from a few, very brief references in other works, there are only four primary sources on the life and work of Hypatia, and even those give somewhat conflicting accounts.  While very little, if any, of Hypatia’s own work has survived, one of her admiring pupils, Synesius of Cyrene, left a considerable body of letters addressed to her.  These are overflowing with admiration and reverence to Hypatia’s knowledge and scientific achievements.  In some, he asks for her advice on the design of scientific instruments, such as a hydroscope (used to determine density of fluids) and an astrolabe (used to predict positions of planets).

Figure 2.  A drawing showing a scene from the stage play “Hypatia,” written by G. Stuart Ogilvie. The play opened at the Haymarket Theatre in London on January 2nd, 1893. (Image in the Public Domain at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Hypatia#mediaviewer/File:Hypatia_at_the_Haymarket_theatre_-_The_Graphic_-_21_January_1893.jpg.)

Figure 2. A drawing showing a scene from the stage play “Hypatia,” written by G. Stuart Ogilvie. The play opened at the Haymarket Theatre in London on January 2nd, 1893. (Image in the Public Domain at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Hypatia#mediaviewer/File:Hypatia_ at_the_Haymarket_theatre_-_The_Graphic_-_21_January_1893.jpg.)

 

Hypatia was the daughter of the philosopher and mathematician Theon of Alexandria.  Around 400 CE she became the head of the Platonic school in Alexandria—an achievement that in itself is nothing short of astonishing.  Hypatia and her father wrote an eleven-part commentary to the Almagest—the celebrated astronomy book by Ptolemy, the most influential Greek astronomer of his time.  She also wrote explanatory notes to several books in mathematics, most notably on Apollonius’s Conics and on Diophantus’s multi-volume Arithmetica.

Hypatia was brutally murdered in 415 CE, either by a fanatical sect of monks or by an Alexandrian mob.  While the precise details of the murder remain unknown, there is little doubt that people who felt threatened by the level of knowledge and encouragement for learning that Hypatia had inspired, committed the murder.

Over the years, Hypatia’s name has become synonymous with learning and her life story was used as the subject of many books, plays (e.g., Figure 2), and works of art (Figure 1).  In astronomy, a main belt asteroid discovered in 1884 was named after her, as well as a crater on the Moon.  In 2013, geologists discovered evidence showing that a fiery comet struck the Sahara desert some 28 million years ago.  The comet was named Hypatia, to celebrate two “firsts.”  She was the first female astronomer, and the findings in the Sahara represented the first direct evidence for a comet hitting the Earth.

 

Feb 112014
 

The original inflationary model of the universe proposed that when our universe was only a tiny fraction of a second old, it underwent a brief, but stupendously accelerated expansion.  The expansion took quantum fluctuations (on subatomic scales) and enlarged them to astronomically relevant dimensions.  This idea (put forward by physicist Alan Guth) explained in one blow a number of otherwise perplexing features of our universe.  For instance, observations of the cosmic microwave background show that our universe is geometrically flat.  This is easy to understand in the context of the inflationary model.  To a tiny ant on the surface of an enormous balloon, any local region would seem flat.  Similarly, the cosmic microwave background is the same in all directions (isotropic) to within one part in a hundred thousand, because our entire observable universe expanded during inflation from a tiny region that had sufficient time to be smoothed out in the early universe.

Soon after the inflationary model was proposed, however, physicists Alex Vilenkin and Andrei Linde discovered that the model also has some unexpected consequences.  In particular, the model seems to produce not just one universe, but rather an infinite ensemble of universes—a multiverse!  While our own universe seems to have had a starting point—a Big Bang—and it seems to be heading towards a cold death, this collection of “pocket” universes has no end, and indeed needs no beginning, with new “bubbles” continuing to pop up eternally.

The picture of “eternal inflation,” if true, provides a new perspective on our place within the cosmic landscape.  Not only do we live on a small planet, around a mediocre star, in one galaxy out of hundreds of billions of similar ones.  Even our entire universe may be just one bubble (one that nonetheless allowed for complexity and life to emerge), out of an infinite ensemble.

Figure 1.  “Kandinsky Universe,” a simulation of eternal inflation by Andrei Linde.  Credit: Andrei Linde (http://www.stanford.edu/~alinde/).

Figure 1. “Kandinsky Universe,” a simulation of eternal inflation by Andrei Linde. Credit: Andrei Linde (http://www.stanford.edu/~alinde/).

Figure 2.  Wassily Kandinsky’s “Composition VII.” The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow (image in the public domain).  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Kandinsky_WWI.jpg

Figure 2. Wassily Kandinsky’s “Composition VII.” The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow (image in the public domain;  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Kandinsky_WWI.jpg).

Andrei Linde carried out some numerical simulations of this ever self-reproducing inflation.  In two dimensions, one of his simulations is represented in Figure 1, which Linde entitled a “Kandinsky Universe,” because it reminded him of the abstract works of painter Wassily Kandinsky (e.g., Figure 2).  Linde also produced simulations of an eternal inflation represented as a three-dimensional landscape (Figure 3), and those look extraordinarily similar to works of another artist, Sol Lewitt (Figure 4 shows the work “Splotch 15”).  The correspondence between simulations of the cosmos and art brings to mind a witty quote from (who else?) Oscar Wilde:  “Paradoxically though it may seem, it is none the less true that life imitates art far more than art imitates life!”

Figure 3.  The fractal “landscape” resulting from eternal inflation.  Credit: Andrei Linde (http://www.stanford.edu/~alinde/)

Figure 3. The fractal “landscape” resulting from eternal inflation. Credit: Andrei Linde (http://www.stanford.edu/~alinde/).

Figure 4.  Sol Lewitt’s “Splotch 15.”  Credit: Spencer T. Tucker.

Figure 4. Sol Lewitt’s “Splotch 15.” Credit: Spencer T. Tucker.

Aug 132013
 

Figure 1. “The Adoration of the Magi” by Giotto di Bondone. From: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f9/Giotto_-_Scrovegni_-_-18-_-_Adoration_of_the_Magi.jpg

The heavens have always been a source of inspiration for poetry, music and the visual arts.  The first chapter of the biblical book of Genesis already talks about the creation of the Sun, Moon and the stars.  The ancient Babylonian, Chinese, North European and Central American cultures all left records and artifacts related to various astronomical observations.  It was only natural then, that at the end of Medieval times, with the first signs of the Renaissance (in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries), the heavens would start making an appearance in important works of art.  One impressive demonstration of the interest in astronomy was in the great Italian painter Giotto di Bondone’s fresco “the Adoration of the Magi” (Figure 1).  The fresco was painted around 1305–06, and it features a very realistic depiction of a comet, representing the “Star of Bethlehem.”  It is thought that the comet’s image was inspired by Giotto’s observations of Halley’s comet in 1301.

Figure 2. “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” by the Limburg brothers. From: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Les_Très_Riches_ Heures_du_duc_de_Berry_ Janvier.jpg

A second beautiful example of astronomy in art is provided by a famous illuminated manuscript.  The three Dutch miniature painters known as the Limburg brothers created the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry book of prayers (Book of Hours), and it is currently considered to be one of the most valuable books in the world.  The book was unfinished at the time of the death of the three brothers in 1416, and the work on it was completed by the painters Barthélemy van Eyck (possibly) and Jean Colombe (certainly).  As Figure 2 shows, an attempt was clearly made to give an accurate representation of the night’s sky, even including meteors.

Figure 3. “The Battle of Issus” by Albrecht Altdorfer. From: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Altdorfer_Alexander.jpg

A third magnificent painting, the “Battle of Issus,” by the German painter Albrecht Altdorfer (Figure 3), may be the first painting in which the curvature of the Earth is shown as seen from above, from a great height.

Finally, I find the illustration of the Ptolemaic geocentric model by the Portugese cosmographer Bartolomeo Velho (Figure 4) extremely attractive.  The illuminated illustration, “Figure of the Heavenly Bodies,” was created in France in 1568.

All of these works of art were being created shortly before or at a time when the Copernican revolution was about to forever change the view humans had of the cosmos and on their place within it.  Far from being perfect and immutable, the heavens turned out to be part of an ever-evolving universe.

Figure 4. “Figure of the Heavenly Bodies” by Bartolomeo Velho. From: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bartolomeu_Velho_1568.jpg

 

Jul 232013
 

It all began in earnest on January 10, 2013, when I received an e-mail from composer and collaborative artist Paola Prestini.  It started with a flattering line:  “I am so intrigued by and love your blog!” she wrote.  But then it got straight to the point: “I would like to create a Hubble song cycle or contemporary cantata for the mezzo soprano Jessica Rivera and the amazing ensemble ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble).”  She added that she thought that the piece would get its strength from concepts related to the universe and Hubble imagery.

“Wow!” I thought to myself, “this would be fantastic.”  After a few more exchanges and conversations via Skype, Prestini, librettist Royce Vavrek, and film maker Carmen Kordas came to Space Telescope Science Institute to meet with me on February 22nd.  During the inspiring conversations that took place that day, we came up with the idea that the piece should somehow make a poetic connection between human life on Earth and the lives of the stars in the heavens.  After all, stars are also born, they live, and they die.  The time that was available to produce the complex multi-media piece was rather short, since Prestini and Manuel Bagorro, the Artistic Director of Bay Chamber Concerts, wanted the cantata to premiere in Maine on July 25, 2013.

Figure 1. The Aokigahara forest in 2008 (from Wikimedia Commons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ File:Aokigahara_forest_01.jpg/).

We decided to symbolically anchor the Earth-based part of the lyrics on the agonizing experiences of a young woman struggling with a harsh reality.  As Vavrek states in the introduction to the libretto: “Her footsteps tell stories.”  The music and imagery for this section were partly inspired by the Japanese mythology-rich forest Aokigahara (Figure 1).  Sadly, the historic association of this forest with demons has led to numerous suicides on the site.  To connect the life (and death) experience of the young woman to the heavens, we used the ancient Peruvian geoglyphs known as the Nazca Lines (Figure 2 shows a satellite picture of such lines).  Again in Vavrek’s words:  “The woman walks in patterns, pictures emerge in the soil…  She creates her own private Nazca lines, tattooing the Earth with her history.”  The Nazca lines in Peru are believed to have been created between the fifth and seventh centuries, and they are thought (at least by some researchers) to point to places on the horizon where certain celestial bodies rose or set.  In other words, they truly marked a direct astronomical connection between the surface of the Earth and the heavens.

Figure 2. Nazca lines (from Wikimedia Commons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ File:Nazca_Lines_SPOT_1311.jpg)

Figure 3. A still photo from the visuals that accompany the “Hubble Cantata.” Credit: Carmen Kordas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In its conclusion, the Cantata completely intermingles the fate of the young woman with the ultimate fate of the stars (as is gracefully illustrated in Figure 3).  The shapes in the sand and the constellations in the sky become one, mirroring the tortuous path of human life in the dramatic Hubble images of outbursts that simultaneously mark stellar deaths and the promise for a new generation of stars, planets, and life.

I have no better word to describe the fusion of Prestini’s music and Vavrek’s libretto with Kordas’s imagery than “mesmerizing.”  I can only hope that the performance of the “Hubble Cantata” will travel extensively, to give as many people as possible the opportunity to emotionally experience its effect.

Jul 022013
 

Humans had been fascinated by starry nights long before astronomy became a science. Those twinkling little lights in the heavens were even players in the biblical description of creation. There, God makes them appear in the dome of the sky on the fourth day.  Over the centuries, the stars have been a constant source and catalyst for poetic inspiration and curiosity.  The great German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote in 1781: “Two things fill the mind with ever increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind of thought is drawn to them:  the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”

Painters were also captivated by the stars.  Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night (Figure 1), is one of this painter’s best-known works.  He painted it just one month after his admission, at his own request, to the asylum at Saint-Rémy.  One year later he committed suicide.  Indeed, the tumultuous, almost violent appearance of the stars in Starry Night was probably a premonition of deep sufferings to come.

Figure 1. Vincent van Gogh's The Starry Night. Museum of Modern Art, New York. From Wikimedia Commons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

Figure 2. The star V838 Mon. Credit: NASA, ESA, and H.E. Bond (STScI).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It has been pointed out that the Hubble image of the star V838 Mon (Figure 2) shows clouds of gas and dust surrounding the star that are very reminiscent of van Gogh’s swirling brush strokes.

Less known than van Gogh’s is another painting entitled Starry Night, by the Norwegian expressionist artist Edvard Munch (Figure 3).  Munch’s painting is almost abstract, and it conveys an atmosphere of mystery and drama.  Munch wrote once: “I am so fond of the darkness—it ought to be just like this evening when the moon is behind the clouds—it is so mysterious.”

Figure 3. Edvard Munch's Starry Night. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. From Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Munch,_Edvard_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

There is very little doubt that even with all of our advances in deciphering the cosmos and its workings, the romantic appeal of the stars will continue to enthrall us for generations to come.

 

Feb 052013
 

Very few scientists in history had the accomplishments of Michael Faraday (1791–1867).  His discoveries in electromagnetism literally transformed this field from a mere curiosity into the powerful technology that ushered in the modern era.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) was one of the finest landscape and seascape artists in the history of art, and one that came even closer to abstract art than the impressionists who followed him.

Turner and Faraday became friends, probably after meeting in the house of the physician James Carrick Moore and his wife, who were very much in the social mainstream of London at the time.  University of Birmingham Curator James Hamilton wrote superb biographies of both Turner and Faraday, which have provided us with insights into the relationship between the two men, and the subtle influence that the scientist may have had on the artist.

First, there was the technical aspect.  Faraday gave Turner advice on how to best test the rate of discoloration and change of pigments in the very polluted air of mid-nineteenth century London.  Second, Turner started to incorporate elements reflecting scientific investigations into his paintings.  For instance, Turner’s impressive painting “The New Moon,” with its crisscrossing small waves, is very reminiscent of Faraday’s description of his observations of the ridges produced by the wind on water or the sandy shore at Hastings.  The same effect, which Faraday termed “crispations”—the disturbances formed in one medium after being struck by another—can be seen in the sea in another Turner painting:  “Life-Boat and Manby Apparatus” (Figure 1).

Figure 1. "Lifeboat and Manby Apparatus going off to a stranded vessel making signal blue lights of distress," by Joseph Mallord William Turner. From http://www.wikigallery.org/wiki/painting_150918/Joseph-Mallord-William-Turner/Lifeboat-and-Manby-Apparatus-going-off-to-a-stranded-vessel-making-signal-blue-lights-of-distress-,-c.1831.

Figure 2. “The Festival of the Opening of the Vintage, Macon,” by Joseph Mallord William Turner. From http://uploads6.wikipaintings.org/images/william-turner/the-festival-of-the-opening-of-the-vintage-macon.jpg.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Faraday may not have been the only scientist to have influenced Turner’s work.  The famous astronomer William Herschel might have been another.  In a groundbreaking lecture given to the Royal Society in 1801, Herschel was the first to describe the dynamic surface of the Sun as having a series of imperfections, including “nodules, corrugations, indentations and pores.”  Turner almost certainly heard about the lecture, since an exhibition including one of his paintings was being arranged at the same time in the same building in which the Royal Society used to meet.  Then, in 1803, Turner painted “The Festival of the Opening of the Vintage, Macon” (Figure 2), in which he appears to have depicted the Sun with the types of details described by Herschel.  In a society in which new, exciting ideas were bound to percolate, it is not inconceivable that Turner decided to change the way he was painting the Sun to correspond to the physical properties the astronomers were discovering.

From a general cultural perspective, we could say that both Faraday and Turner were exploring the properties of light.  Faraday was the first to show that magnetic fields could influence the behavior of light waves.*  Turner, on his part, became known as “the painter of light” of his time because of his masterful use of brilliant colors.  The scientist and the artist have incredibly enriched our understanding of nature and our emotional response to it.

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*This phenomenon, now known as Faraday rotation, is not only used to great effect in modern astronomy, but was also the first step towards James Clerk Maxwell’s demonstration that light is an electromagnetic wave.

Jan 222013
 

Almost everyone would agree that the image of the radio galaxy Hercules A (Figure 1), taken by the Karl J. Jansky Very Large Array radio telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope, is beautiful. Similarly, few would object to the statement that Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (Figure 2) is a breathtakingly beautiful masterpiece. But what is it that induces these responses in people? Is there a mathematical formula that can evaluate, even approximately, the beauty of images, objects, literary works, or pieces of music? Believe it or not, but in a book published in 1933, the famous mathematician George David Birkhoff (1884–1944) attempted to do precisely that—to develop a mathematical theory of aesthetic value. Birkhoff realized that there are many components to the concept of “beauty,” and he attempted to discuss what he regarded as that intuitive feeling which is “clearly separable from sensuous, emotional, moral, or intellectual feeling.” To that goal, he divided the aesthetic experience into three phases: (1) the effort of attention needed for perception; (2) the recognition of certain order; and (3) the appreciation of value—the reward for the mental effort. Birkhoff then took a stab at quantifying these three stages. He argued that the initial effort is proportional to the complexity of the object being observed, which he denoted by C. He called the order exhibited by the object O, and the assigned mental value, or aesthetic measure, M. He then suggested that within each class of aesthetic objects, such as flowers, vases, or pieces of music, one can actually define an order O (which may depend e.g., on symmetry) and a complexity C. Birkhoff’s formula for the feeling of aesthetic value was then simply: M = O/C. In other words, for a given level of complexity, the more order the object possesses, the higher its aesthetic measure. Alternatively, for a specified amount of order, objects are considered more aesthetic if they are less complex.

Figure 1. Radio galaxy Hercules A, showing jets powered by accretion onto the central black hole.

Figure 2. “Girl with a Pearl Earring” by Johannes Vermeer. At the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Birkhoff would have been the first to admit that the evaluation of O and C was rather ambiguous. Still, he made a heroic effort to provide some guidelines and prescriptions for the case of simple geometrical shapes, and for ornaments, music, and poetry (e.g., of Tennyson and Shakespeare).

I must say that it would be rather difficult to apply Birkhoff’s formalism to evaluating the beauty of images by the Hubble Space Telescope. However, in his words, this was merely an attempt to give “a simple, unified, account of the aesthetic experience,” and Birkhoff hoped that it would provide “means for the systematic analysis of typical aesthetic fields.” As I’ve noted above, Birkhoff did not even pretend for his formula to take into account the emotional and intellectual response that objects induce in viewers. Since there’s no doubt that images of the universe elicit powerful emotional and intellectual reactions, we shouldn’t be too surprised that Birkhoff’s limited approach does not easily apply. A deeper understanding of what we perceive as beautiful will have to await a clearer elucidation of the way our brain operates. To quote (out of context) Shakespeare: “As truth and beauty shall together thrive.”