OUR COMPLEX UNIVERSE
A Human Understanding Through Art
Adler Planetarium, Chicago, Illinois, 2005
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Vast numbers of stars in the Milky Way tumble from nearly overhead
to the darkened horizon, where they disappear from
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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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