A Human Understanding Through Art

INSAP V Keynote Address

Adler Planetarium, Chicago, Illinois, 2005

Jim Kaler

(Return to Skylights or STARS.)

Nature, in all its aspects, provides us with a foundation for creating art in all its forms. Among the most inspirational of these aspects are those of the sky, from sunsets to stars to galaxies. But it works both ways. While we can strive to know the Universe through physics and mathematics, the unending complexity of the structures we examine overwhelms the senses and hinders our ability to appreciate the beauty and meaning of our surroundings. The arts provide avenues for understanding and interpreting the complexity of nature in human terms. In doing so, they reveal more of nature's aesthetics, and thereby have the power to inspire scientists to look ever deeper into our Universe.

The Key Note

I seem to have set a formidable task in explaining art to artists, astronomy to astronomers, art to astronomers, astronomy to artists. This work, however, is definitely not an exercise in art appreciation. Neither is it an astronomy class. Nor is it the expected summary of how astronomy can influence the arts. The key idea instead is to begin by turning the subject on its head, by looking at the reverse, at how art in its broadest sense can give back meaning and inspiration to astronomy and astronomers.


The Moon rises over the town of Hernandez, New Mexico, as Ansel Adams' famous photo blends astronomy and art. What a superb picture with which to introduce astronomy and art as a couple, a pair, and what a wonderful opportunity for education in both. The Moon, hovering above the mountains and town, appears to be illuminating the scene before us. But look! The Moon is rising in its waxing gibbous phase, which it can do only in daylight. The Sun, off the image and to the back of the viewer, is lighting the buildings, not the Moon. The blue desert sky only appears black on the black-and-white film, the picture perhaps made with a red filter. It's a classic day-for-night shot. In parallel, here we will similarly celebrate astronomy and art with Moonrise over Chicago.

Chicago moon

Not New Mexico, instead the Moon rises over the city of Chicago, as if blessing the marriage of astronomy and the arts.


We all have our own unique views of art. We also all have our own unique views of astronomy. Just because astronomy is a science does not mean it is not personal. And so is the connection between astronomy and art. To some, art is the Mona Lisa or Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. To others, it is poker- playing dogs. Or Christ on black velvet with eyes that light up. Or the latest girl band. The art in anything is in the meaning to the individual, and who are we to say how the best or the worst should inspire, or lead to thought, or change a life. (One of C. M. Coolidge's pictures of gambling mutts went at auction for half a million dollars, and I really did see the so- illuminated version of Jesus, which the salesman thought was beautiful.)


The night sky, coupled with our efforts to understand it through our astronomy, is its own work of art.

To some, astronomy is a strict mathematical description of nature; you must use mathematics or high technology, or you are not an astronomer (an all-too-common attitude). To others, it is merely the happy appreciation of the quiet beauty of the night sky -- or the daytime sky for that matter -- that makes the astronomer. However art or science are described, they are thus -- again -- intensely personal. But we can share our views, as in sharing we change each others' perspectives. To me, astronomy IS art, it is aesthetics, it is the art of nature, of the heavens. The first flat maps of the constellations are near-magical Dürer woodcuts; the dark mountain observatory set into a star-drenched sky seems to open the gate to the glory of the heavens; the Hubble image of a dying star's filigreed ejecta could hang on the wall of any museum anywhere, nature making her own art. In studying astronomy, we change ourselves, much as the viewing of art can change us. In studying both we have the opportunity to change not just our own minds and hearts but to change those of others as well -- and to change the world.

NGC 6543

The "Cat's Eye Nebula" surrounds a dying star that has wraped itself on its own complex wreath. NASA, ESA, HEIC, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI and AURA).


Helios, god of the Sun, drives his chariot above the horizon to begin his daily journey across the sky. So brilliant is he that we cannot gaze upon his glory. Up he flies to the top of heaven, down he urges his four horses until they gallop low into the west, his last light flickering away in twilight as the stars he has kept at bay begin to emerge. He warms and lights our day, grows our crops, gives us life. He and his golden visage long ago become identified with Apollo, the god of beauty, light, music, art, among whose company were the nine muses, one of whom was Urania, Muse of Astronomy. The illumination of our minds and souls through art, music, and literature were thereby forever tied to the heavens and to the Sun above, and by further connection to the stars and to all the Universe.

An evening of the golden Sun. There is nothing that will hide it but the distant horizon, as it goes from white to yellow to pure gold, the grass, greener than possible within its embrace, seeming like liquid Ireland. Lie within it, see the sky blue, the Sun made of molten metal. Stand within the solar glow, feel the warmth, the world existing in many dimensions. Why does nature intrigue so, why does such beauty exist? Is it because we ARE nature, because we belong to it all? Some see a conflict of humanity with "nature." There is no conflict, we are not against nature: we are nature, all of us, so we appropriately marvel at what is there.

With this melding of the two, I believe that art in all its forms is needed to comprehend the complexity of the Universe, to see it on a human scale. How complex? Relax your minds and hearts and see.

Complexity of Space...

Look into the Universe, seemingly, and maybe truly, infinite. But our own world is infinite too. Look at the cloud's edge: it ripples. Look at the ripples and they ripple too. Hast thou never looked at a blade of grass, or a leaf of autumn, and seen the Universe within it? And then taken one piece of it and seen the Universe within that? And a piece of even that and seen the Universe within that? And so on into the depths of inner space. As there is no end to the large, neither is there an end to the small. Pick any puffy cloud. How many clouds are there like it over the world? How many flowers are there, how many butterflies, how many rocks, each of which is a Universe unto itself, each PART of which is a Universe unto itself, and down and down into the atom as far as you care to go.


Billows in the cloud's edge have their own billows, and so on ad infinitum, each replicating the others in near-infinite complexity.

All of these structures are embraced by our astronomy, as the clouds and rocks are part of this one planet Earth, much of which is repeated in some way throughout the Sun's family of planets, and if there is not life then still there are rocks and sand and volcanoes and stark beauty. We have seen it, seen it in the Rovers' views of the surface of Mars, in Cassini's views of the satellites of Saturn.

Now the Sun is gone and the stars are out, making a new night. See the clouds of space, look as we probe deeper into the ripples of each bright nebula, and see them rippling ever deeper just like the clouds of Earth. Here -- in one of the most famed of astronomical photos -- is one of the black "pillars" of the Eagle Nebula. Its tip is "boiling off" as a result of the energetic radiation from nearby hot stars. Like Earth-cloud edges, the resulting little billows have their own billows that in turn have their own, linking the phenomena of our own Earth directly with them.


A dusty, star-forming "pillar" in the Eagle Nebula replicates the billows of the clouds of Earth, offering bottomless complexity. Such structures abound in our Galaxy and in the billions of others that surround us. NASA, ESA, STScI, J. Hester and P. Scowes, Arizona State University.

Milky Way

Vast numbers of stars in the Milky Way tumble from nearly overhead to the darkened horizon, where they disappear from sight.

Deep sky-photos show cascades, waterfalls, of stars that pour from heaven's rivers. Many, maybe most, of these wonderful suns have their own worlds, with star- sets, star-rises. How many worlds are out there with their own clouds and flowers, each of which is a Universe unto itself, the worlds of beauty infinite.

And here we see just our Galaxy, our flattened collection of two hundred billion stars. Now look outward to see other galaxies, clusters of them, walls of them that never seem to end. In each Galaxy there are billions of stars, and how many of these hold earths that hang beautiful clouds in their skies, that have edges with edges in which there is another Universe of detail that never ends, all this complexity repeated for each of the infinite planets of infinite stars of infinite galaxies of maybe infinite Universes.

Deep field

In the original Hubble Deep Field, three thousand galaxies crowd a tiny area of sky. R. Williams and the HDF Team (STScI and NASA).

...And of Time

But we have looked only at space. As the water droplet drips from the icicle, hanging forever in the photographer's brief moment, all so far has been frozen. Now factor in Einstein's fourth dimension, time itself, as real in our lives and in the life of the Universe as are the three dimensions of space. I am standing outside again watching these puffy clouds fly overhead. I can stand here my whole lifetime and will never see this scene again. Never. The same generic view, surely, but not this view with these delicate wisps. The same is true over the whole Earth. Others will see clouds, yes, but not these structures, even if they wait for a lifetime of lifetimes. Never. I am seeing something unique. Even in the whole known Universe, if all stars had planets like Earth, nobody would ever see this scene repeated. Infinite complexity cannot be recreated by the finite.


Through its spherical lens, the drop from the melting icicle freezes a moment of the whole surrounding world. An infinitesimal step in time changes the scene to a new complexity.

I can look at an interstellar cloud, a place of star birth, tonight, and tomorrow it will seem the same, but we know it is not, it has changed, if only infinitesimally, and it will never be the same again. Only if the Universe is really infinite could there be potential for re-creation of places and events. But what if the complexity itself, that in space and time, is also infinite? Can infinite complexity be recreated by an infinite universe? Now add life, human life, which multiples the complexity by yet another infinity. Is it possible that all the innate complexity of the Universe is necessary to sustain us, and perhaps others who may inhabit the worlds of space?


Such a sight will never be seen exactly again.

Sit alone upon an island shore
And watch the mating of the sand and sea
Embrace within your vision's core
The Universe's vast complexity.
Churning at the coast, the ocean hurls
A million sunlit bubbles to the sky,
Each flashing drop its own minuscule world,
Each a cosmos caught within your eye.
Now multiply this view around the Earth,
Now multiply afresh to space's end
Where heavens' stars began to give us birth,
Our Sun and Earth and selves a starry blend.
Only from such great infinity
Could all our hopes and dreams have come to be.

(Paths' End, from Cosmic Clouds, Scientific American Library, Freeman, NY, 1997, copyright J. B. Kaler.)


It is one of the duties -- and pleasures -- of the artist to explain these matters, to put them into human terms, in painting, sculpture, photography, prose, poetry, music, dance, to express the uniqueness of what we see, hear, feel, to explain the experience in terms of the human spirit. Art -- in whatever form -- provides us with a unique experience in its ability to capture time and space, to hold them for us so that we can examine them and perhaps begin to understand them insofar as our human experience allows.

But they do so in a way that echoes how the Universe itself behaves. Quiet it may be, hanging in the gallery or the home, but no painting is looked at the same way twice. Hear a string quartet. Hear it again, and it is not the same, it can never be the same, thus replicating our views of nature, of the day or night skies, which are never repeated either. We need to connect our astronomy to our humanity. How better to do it than to take art to the heavens themselves to explore the vast universe of time and space, to alloy the two. In doing so, art further inspires us as astronomers, which -- by virtue of our being here -- we all are.

See the violent complexity of the Sun, then reduce it to human understanding as we revel in sunlight created by processes that still overwhelm our physical understanding. Hear it then in the Kronos Quartet's Sunrings; see it in the photography a soft sunrise; feel Miro's Joy of a Little Girl Before the Sun, then watch her mature into Friedrich's Woman in the Morning Sun, much as the Sun itself changes and matures, allowing us to witness growth and change, astronomy and art now the same, the human experience now helping us to understand the heavens.


A quiet sunrise allows us see the awesome nature of the Sun in human terms.

Watch that Moon rise over Hernandez, over Chicago, over anywhere on Earth; watch it in the "Moonrises" of van Gogh and Millet, the Moon another world apart from ours, and see it again as it quiets the night and brings our minds and emotions from art back to nature. Look at the serene night sky, explained not just in photography but by van Gogh's glowing Dipper in Starry Night over the Rhone as it glides beneath the pole, allowing us to relate it not just to the Earth but to humanity in the mirrored reflections of village lights. Gaze at the glory of the Milky Way. See how it was born in myth, as in Tintoretto's woman spilling a milky stream, allowing us to connect with the beliefs of our ancestors. Watch the change in art, as in Elsheimer's Flight into Egypt," the painted Milky Way now resolving into stars as astronomers began to understand what the milky circle really is, the art itself feeding back into furtherance of astronomy as it announces what the science means to us as humans.


van Gogh's Starry Night over the Rhone.

Look farther to the outside, to other galaxies, and the art follows in its meaning to us, the swirl of the spiral galaxy set into another of van Gogh's starry nights allowing to appreciate the connections between distant and near space, to be moved by them. Then at last look into the depths of the Universe, epitomized by the Hubble Deep Field and by the Sloan Survey map, where in awe we look at a tiny piece of the countless billions of galaxies that surround us. It can all be brought back to us through art, as done so brilliantly by Ben Shahn, whose patient observer gazes off into the distance to ancient myths overlain with Einstein's field equations, the equations that begin to probe the Universe, the art and the equations together inspiring us to go ever deeper into the exploration of its meaning.


Cosmic contemplation. Ben Shahn, Scientific American, September, 1953.

Here then...

is the artist, the musician, the writer, the dancer, whose unique views and experiences try to explain the Universe of time and space in an unending number of possible ways to enhance our experience and alter our points of view such that they too can change and grow, much as the Universe itself is always changing and growing. The Universe has its own reality. The reality we perceive is one of the human mind that constructs, through the senses, our own human Universe from the mysterious "real" one. As artists, it is our purpose to explore that "real" Universe, to show how the beauty of nature, whether mysterious or understood, leads to beauty in the human soul.

Art thus becomes an explanation of the complexity of the Universe in terms we can understand, as the Universe itself is -- because of that infinite complexity -- truly not understandable in the whole. A piece of art, by itself, and in its kinetic way of always changing its meaning to us, simplifies the Universe for the human mind. It is through art that the Universe reveals itself to us, it is art that brings the astronomy into a sharper focus, that stops the flow of space and time for us to enjoy, weep over, contemplate. The Universe keeps moving through time, its space ever-expanding, never repeating itself, our knowledge of it ever-expanding as well, giving us infinite opportunities for the arts to bring the Universe's infinite complexity into focus and into our lives in ways that make us one with the infinity of nature.

At the end, we go out into the world both as artists -- which we all are -- and as scientists and astronomers -- which we all are -- and use our knowledge and skills to bring to others a sense of appreciation of both art and astronomy and of the joining of the two, to bring the beauty of the Universe into our lives and the meanings of our lives into the Universe, to bring the scientists and artists together to absorb each others' visions, so as to continue the cycle for as long as our children walk the Earth.

The lights from the parlor and kitchen shone out
Through the blinds and the windows and bars;
And high overhead and all moving about,
There were thousands of millions of stars.
There ne'er were such thousands of leaves on a tree,
Nor of people in church or the Park,
As the crowds of the stars that looked down upon me,
And that glittered and winked in the dark.
The Dog, and the Plough, and the Hunter, and all
And the Star of the Sailor, and Mars,
These shown in the sky, and the pail by the wall
Would be half full of water and stars.
They saw me at last, and they chased me with cries,
And they soon had me packed into bed;
But the glory kept shining and bright in my eyes,
And the stars going round in my head.

Robert Louis Stevenson, Escape from Bedtime from
A Child's Garden of Verses.

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