A Daily History of Holes, Dots, Lines, the Unintentional Absurd & Nothing |1.6 million words, 7000 images, 3 million hits| History of Science, Math & Tech | Press & appearances in The Times, Le Figaro, The Economist, The Guardian, Discovery News, Slate, Le Monde, Sci American Blogs, Le Point, and many other places...
These small images are elements composing an engraving from the atlas volume to accompany the polymathic Alexander von Humboldt's (1769-1759) Kosmos, published in 1856 (the atlas volume online here, at the Biodiversity Library). Each of the small images is about 1.5" square, with great detail--tiny and remarkable, and very well designed.
Attributing human characteristics to extra-terrestrial bodies is an ancient practice. Constellation It is an ancient human practice of giving stuff human attributes, to allow things to have powers of reason,and understanding, in order to make them understandable, intellectuallyconsumable. This applies to (Father) time, many aspects of the possibilities of g_d, constellations, planets, the Man in the Moon, facial appellations of the Sun, winds, rain, and so on. Large chunks of our real and imagined worlds are given faces and mentions--that, plus personifications of elements, where we describe the difficult and the invisible with traits that are in our common human understandable currency: like, for example, sin "lurking" and storms "hiding" and meteors "racing". It makes the complex and uncommon more reasonable.
In all of this, particularly in the personification and anthropomorphization of celestial entities, there are very few examples of vicious and cruel representation of a subject. That is what struck me so about the following cartoon from Puck magazine--I am sure that I have never seen a racist representation of an element in the sky. Until today.
[The heavenly porter: Caption: "Brush yo' off, Suh? Ain't gwine t' be 'round ag'in foh sev'ty-five yeahs!" Illustration in Puck, v. 67, no. 1733 (1910 May 18), cover. Copyright 1910 by Keppler & Schwarzmann. Source: Trevor Owens, via the LOC.]
This is an example of how engrained racist thinking like this was at that time--and it makes a person think about the unthought aspects of racism exists elsewhere, at other times, and today.
There are times when the future turns up in unexpected places--and sometimes that imagery is quite unintentional, and belongs only to the viewer in that future, looking back. It seems to me that many of these examples belong in the history of scientific illustration
Thomas Dick's Celestial Scenery, or, The wonders of the planetary system displayed
was published by Harper & Brothers in New York in 1838 is a good example for a home of some of these flashes of future brilliance. What we're seeing in the pages of this chunky book--which was an influential object in the early reading of a number of people who were to become influential astronomers, one including E.E.. Barnard--are lovely, simple, and include some relatively simple images of size comparisons. The result seems to my eye to suggest Suprematist art, geometrical art that would come into being another 75 years hence or so. (This movement was founded by the great Kazimir Malevich in the 19-teens, who said of it: "Under Suprematism I understand the primacy of pure feeling in creative art. To the Suprematist, the visual phenomena of the objective world are, in themselves, meaningless; the significant thing is feeling, as such, quite apart from the environment in which it is called forth.") Of course the Dick images were simple comparatives and not-yet-art--but they certainly do suggests themselves as something more than what they are. The full text of the book is located at the Internet Archive, here. (Thanks to Trevor Owens and his interesting Pinterest collection here who brought my attention to the Dick book via images of the Martian canals.)
A plan of the rings of Saturn relating their size and some of their imagined composition:
Kazimir Malevich, Black Circle, 1915:
Comparative of the Earth to Saturn's rings; image bottom, depicts the Sun and Jupiter
People get stuff wrong.--(could've been said by) R.P. Feynman
[Source: via Chronicles of America series at the Library of Congress, here, and first seen via the interesting Pinterest collection of Trevor Owens, here.]
Some five years after Percy Lowell filed his Gigantic Situation of intelligent life on Maris in 1906, and 14 years after H.G. Wells' octopusian Martian invasion, the Salt Lake Tribune published this limb-numbing story on solar-flare-sized plant eyeball creatures who were said to inhabit Mars. Rather they lived of Mars--the eyeball plant was thousands of miles big, growing along the surface of Mars, and then rising up above it to survey itself and its dominion via an unlashed and unlidded eggy eyeball of stupendous size mileage.
But when you squint and feel the whole scenario out, you can sort of see how someone might've come up with this solution to the Martian canals. Or canali, as they were first described in in 1877 in Italian by the very busy and very astute G.V. Schiaparelli--it was unfortunate that the need for mistranslating the word from Italian into "canals" rather than 'channels", but wicked imagination must've taken hold of Lowell, and he ran with the idea that the markings on the surface of the planet were of intelligent design. (I'm sorry that Schiaparelli is remembered mostly for this particular contribution to astronomy in the popular mind--he was really a pretty extraordinary scientist and historian of science, and in his exceptional biography in the 1910 volume of theAstrophysical Journal there is a long and lauditory appraisal of his life and career, without a peep/mention of the infamous canali).
And by "squinting" acknowledgement I mean squinting very hard--at least it could account for the changing seasonal forms of the canals, as their positions would change if the thing was alive. Of course, the whole "living planet" deal doesn't work out so well physically and biologically, though it is a smashing good idea for a scifi story, especially one appearing in 1912. Lowell had a very difficult time explaining the movements of these figures, because--according to his theory--the Martians would've been constructing positively enormous canals that stretch across the planet which were also wide enough to be visible via telescope from Earth--with changing positions, that would mean, possibly, that the Martians would fill these things back up again at the turn of the season, and then build and fill the next, and so on. It would be an interesting calculation to see how much real estate was being moved on Mars every year.
Lowell did come up with an explanation for this seeming motion--turgidly, he felt that the canals themselves didn't actually moved; rather, it was a huge movable biomass on the canals at were changing so much the activity could be seem fro space. There were many problems with the theory, as very ably pointed out by the great Alfred Russell Wallace, who eviscerated Lowell and his intelligent Martian life idea (published in his Mars and its Canals published in 1906 which was followed byMars as the Abode of Life in 1909) in his own book, Is Mars Habitable? (1907). The Mars business eclipses Lowell's other very capable work, or at least so it seems--when the man died in 1910, he was buried on Mars Hill at the observatory in Flagstaff.
The Giant All-Seeing Eyeball was hoisted high in the Tribune, given supposed life by the very highly capable astronomer W.W. Campbell (1862-1930, with his biography here at the National Academy of Science), who is quoted by the paper as being the source of this preposterous theory. Campbell was not pleased by this--not at all. And I can well imagine why.
I can't consider the Salt Lake paper's story a hoax (as in the case of the great Moon hoax perpetrated in the pages of the New York Sun in 1835), mainly because it is surrounded by other crazy/funny stories--and it didn't try to present the story as a piece of non-fiction, as is classically the case with hoaxes. The Tribune followed up this story on the very next page with one on how the English aristocracy was turning into gorillas.
The iconography of the Moon is certainly wide and vast, but I'm thinking that this may be a very good candidate for the first time that the Moon appears as an airplane. I found this lovely image depicting the champion of the air, the great and all-knowing height-highness, the Moon. In 1914, eleven years after the first powered heavier than air flight of the Wright brothers, the development of more sophisticated was appreciating at a high rate, and there were newer higher records for (fixed wing) altitudes. (In 1908 the altitude record was about 360'; in 1910, it stood at 8,000'--balloons had achieved loftier records, around 40,000' in 1912.) This was a sly way of pointing out that try as they may and try as they might, the inhabitants of Earth wouldn't come quite so close to the Moon as they would dream. And that was true until Apollo 8 found itself on the far side of the Moon, only 56 years later. [Source: The Day Book, Chicago, March 24, 1914. Image provided by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Library, Urbana, IL. Persistent link: http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045487/1914-03-24/ed-1/seq-31/]
The composition of the sun remained basically hidden to scientists until relatively recently--certainly it was well into the 20th century before astronomers/astrophysicists got a good idea of what the sun is, exactly. The perfection of god's creation and Aristotle's unchanging nature of the sun must've been suspected for a long time given its coronal displays during total eclipse and ancient unaided observation of sunspots (which at least suggested that the sun rotated), but the true nature of the "imperfect" nature of the star wasn't firmly exhibited until the work of Thomas Harriot and the Fabricus and Galileo and Scheiner--but then there wasn't that much that could be employed from the data. So too true even with Bunsen and Kirchhoff in their profound invention and discovery in 1859 of the spectrographic analysis of the sun revealing its chemical composition (finding the absorption lines in the spectrum of the sun contained hydrogen,m nicekl, iron, sodium,cacium, and magnesium as starters)--this information was essential in establishing discoveries that would come much later on. (Interesting to note here that the first record of a solar flare is made in this same year by Richard Carrington, and also that this year saw the publication of On the Origin of Species as well as Riemann's hypothesis and Maxwell's kinetic theory of gases--a big year in the history of science).
The interesting hypothesis of sunspots as "holes" in the surface of the sun was made by Alexander Wilson (professor of astronomy at the University of Glasgow) in his paper "Observations on the Solar Spots" on 1 January 1774 and published in the Philosophical Transactions (volume 64, pp 1-30, and available here). It was one attempt at an explanation for the mysterious black spots that also opened the door to the possibility of the sun being inhabited. The spots then would have been conical holes in the sun's photosphere, with the dark part coming from a glimpse of the interior (and presumably cooler) part of the sun.
From the vantage point here in the future this looked like not such a great idea, especially coming only a few years before the (1787) discovery by William Herschel that the sun and the rest of the solar system was in motion relative to the stars and was slowly moving towards a point in the contellation Hercules, which was an enormous scientific breakthrough as well as philosophical-theological chllenge, a cosmological "aha!" moment. That said, Mr. Herschel also held the view that sun spots were possibly cavities in the surface of the sun, the reasoning for which was very good and at times convincing in the absence of anything better, a pretty good product for its time
The beautiful image introducing this post was designed about a hundred years after the Wilson paper, and appeared in the prolific Amédée Guillemin's (1826-1893) The Sun (translated from the original French in 1875), and which is available in full text pdf from The Haiti Trust. Guillemin spends a chapter on sunspots and holes and presents a convicing history of the idea, and that according to Wilson and others the spots were cavities in a liquid globule envelope and revealed the solid mass of the sun "through a cloudy atmosphere with a grey tiny all around" (page 214).
The epilogue of Guillemin's book addresses the issue of life on the sun ("Is the Sun Inhabited?") and in his review Guillemin very plainly makes the case that it is "absolutely impossible to support life" on the sun due to the heat--presently. He qualifies his assessment finally by asking "Will it become habitable?", and responding that it was "very possible" (page 295), but that it would have to take place in a future where the rest of the planets and everything else has gotten colder.
It seems to me that in the history of astrology--or at least for what seems to be most of it, at least through the late antiquarian publishing aspect of it--that comets and meteors were basically not utilized. Perhaps it was because in that world these entites didn't really effect anything--perhaps they were simply mysterious, spurious, and incongruent, and not a subject for installation in the astrological night sky. Comets (from the Greek, kometes, "long-haired") and meteors (Greek again, from meteoran, a "thing in the air") and bolides (exploding meteors, from the Greek bolis, or "missile"), holosiderites, siderolites, aerolites uranolites, and so on, have a long and complex story in the history of astronomy, at least in some ways; perhaps the most influential thinker on comets held thinking at bay and did so for two milennia: Aristotle's Meteorology made the case that comets were not a planet or associated with planets or even necessarily part of the heavens--rather they were a phenomena of the atmosphere. So perhaps their use as astronomical/astrological objects was limited by their very Aristotlean obviousness of being near-Earth objects.
The Comet of 1066 (later named Halleys' Comet), as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry (completed in the 1080's)
The fear aspect of comets--the Comet of 1528--was depicted in Ambrose Pares Livres de Chirurgie (1597), and shows what part of the concern was (the coming demise of nations, the death of rules) with the appearance of decapitated heads and a large sword and raining daggers:
[Nicolas Le Rouge, Le Grand Kalendrier et Compost des Bergieres, published in 1496 in Troyes.
The night sky is a mnemonic device, a place to store memory and a holder of the alphabet of myths and beliefs of all, a culture written large across the sky. Meteors and comets were not predictable, and could add nothing insofar as a consistent bit of storytelling was concerned, though they certainly created their own stories in each observed appearance; they could also add punctuation and exclamation to whatever constellation they appeared in. For example if one appeared in a juncture with Jupiter, a major event for royalty would possibly be foretold. But as a permanent element to the visualization of the night sky, they had little power even though they seemed to be displays of fantastic energy and power in themselves.
[For some reason the celestial court, divided by sunlight and flanked by two other sources of light, have ofund it expedient to issue comets from the mouths of Heaven Canon. I'm not sure what's going on in the forground with the fellow working his spade next to the triangular blankness. the man to his right seems to have been overtaken in fear (as have the group of people visible to the left over the shoveler's shoulder).]
[Halley's comet appears again on the title page of this work by the Hungarian George Henischius, a professor of rhetoric, mathematics and medicine at Augsberg.]
This lovely if not very convincing argument was produced and directed by "a German engineer, Herr" (Enrst) Horgiger, of Munich. He attempted to wed belief and mythology and astronomy, providing a worlds-in-collision explanation for the Flood. From the caption to the drawing I do not know if it is The Flood of Noah, as it occurs in the book of Genesis in the Bible, or the flood of Apollodorus, or Hygenius, or of the Eridu Genesis (some 2000 years or so before Genesis) or the flood of Atrachasis (of about 1650 bce) or the flood of Gilgamesh (of about 1100 bce), or if it is the flood of Emhil, or Zeus, or Allah, or Yahweh, or the other 150+ great floods of mythology categorized by James Frazer in his astounding but unreadable books. But it is a flood, and his reason is that a wandering body in space came into temporary orbit around the Earth with a resulting gravitational soup that caused the waters to rise up after which the flood occurred and the orbiting sphere to break apart.
As I said, it is a pretty picture, with a nice deep blue background that my scanner won't capture.
Source: The Illustrated London News, 21 January 1925, "A New Theory of the Flood: How it Might Repeat Itself".
In this episode of the Strange Things in the Sky Department there are a number of posts dealing with Strange Earths--sometimes there are strange Earths int he sky, above the Earth. And so on. In this small offering we see a green-sea earth viewed by Martians from, well, Mars. It is the cover art for sheet music "A Signal from Mars", composed by Raymond Taylor and arranged by E.T. Paull in 1901. Somehow the Earth is being illuminated by a small canned power source of high energy light that must have the energy of a pulsar, and there's a five-pointed star that is added for unknown effects. There's mot much more that can be said, except that the music (sampled below), which is a ragtime march, has nothing to do with Mars so far as I can tell. Mars was certainly in the news when this sheet music was published in 1901--Percy Lowell had taken it upon himself to interpret Giovanni Schiaparelli's 1877 of "canali" on Mars as "canals" rather than "channels" and convinced himself that what he was seeing with his superior instrumentation were indeed structures built by engineers of another race on another planet. So, perhaps "A Signal from Mars" was much like the Atomic Motels in 1945 and Radium Cakes in 1897--folks just used a popular name in the news to excite interest in their own work via association with repetitive references.
[Source: the Library of Congress] This is a detail from:
Another curious image of Martians with telescopes comes from Puck magazine in 1904:
Martians pointing telescopes at the Earth is a much more preferable situation than Martians pointing gigantic cannons:
This is the cover art by the fabulous Frank R. Paul for Stanley D. Bell's "Martian Guns" found in the January 1932 issue of Wonder Stories.
There's really no way to determine how big the gun is except to say
that it is probably "big"--there's just nothing to place the thing in
perspective, as the figures in the foreground, being Martian, don't have
a specific height. They could be 6' tall, or 60'--perhaps they're
only 1/10 of an inch tale, and the projectile they're firing to the
earth is so devastatingly powerful that size doesn't matter.
Many years ago in D.C. I bought part of the estate library of Parmelee C. Daniels--the books had been passed down to the next generation, and after their passing some of those books came into my bookstore. Among them was this wonderful photograph, made by P.V. Reyes of Avalon California in 1923. But it wasn't until tonight that I could easily put together the history of the image. (And when I said "small mystery solved" I meant that it was a small mystery to me--no doubt there will be many others who will identify this instrument on first light).
I found that the photograph was made during the 1923 Solar Eclipse Expedition to Santa Catalina Island at Camp Wrigley, and was attended by Daniels and a host of the Big Names of astronomy of the 19-teens and 'twenties. Daniels was a professor at Drake University in Des Moines, and the school's telescope was packed up and made the trip to the Pacific. I do believe that this is the 8.5-inch refractor that was the gift to the school of General Drake in 1893, although I could be wrong.
Here's the image of the telescope (with Daniels standing on the box, President of Drake University and astronomy professor Dr. Morehouse, and Prof. Edwin B. Frost. The image comes from the University of Chicago:
[PC Daniels photo on the solar eclipse expedition of 1923 via the University of Chicago, http://storage.lib.uchicago.edu/ucpa/series6/derivatives_series6/apf6-03446-031r.jpg]
And so the story of this photograph gained some life tonight by me simply plumbing the intertubes for information. Unfortunately I do not know the identity of the boy in the sailor's suit.
8 1/4" Brashear/Warner&Swasey refractor, 1894. (Curiously, in a
dedicatory article in the 1922 issue of "Popular Astronomy" it is
described by the chief astronomer at Drake University, Daniel Morehouse
as a 9" telescope). According to Kirby-Smith (U.S. Observatories, Van
Nostrand Reinhold), it has an interchangeable front flint element for
visual or photographic work, and has a 5" doublet Brashear camera and a
polarizing solar eyepiece. Possibly also, a filar micrometer and a
These compelling images belong to Astronomie Populaire ou Description des Corps Célestes, Avec Atlas en Tableaux Transparents, à l'usage des Gens du Monde, which was published in Bruxelles in 1862. The book is surprising, with several of the engravings being laid in, with holes for the interiors of stars and glassine on the back of the plate so that the image can be held up to (candle) light for a better effect of looking at the night sky.
For the most part Native Americans of the pre-U.S. had no names for days, no
division of the week, nor a name for years, though underscoring the observation of the skies and the passing of time was a primary appreciation of a more sophisticated lunar cosmology.
Simply put, the lunar cycle was one of the major ways in which
Indians captured spent time. Days, weeks and travel distances were
in general measured in terms of nights passed, or sleeps (similarly
the length of the day in terms of the four major daily appearances
of the sun and moon). The passing of the year was marked in lunar
cycles, and delineated important, measurable, repeating events in the
environment important in the life of a tribe. (These events—harvests, plantings,
snows—would vary from tribe to tribe according to their geographic
Given that today is the winter solstice I thought to have a look at some artwork or imagery depicting the sun. I went to bookcase where there were some astronomy books and plucked out one at random--it turned out to be Denison Olmsted's (1791-1859) Practical Astronomy textbook sort of written for his 12 students at Yale in 1839 (and bound with Ebenezer Porter Mason's Introduction to Practical Astronomy, which was a supplement published ten years later). Its a fine not-big/not-little book (320 pages plus Mason's 135 pages), and it still reads pretty well. (There's also a very sweet 16-page outline of the course he taught, breaking the lectures down into fairly small chunks. There's an interesting part of lecture XII entitled "DANGERS" which addresses heat and cold and bad business that could come from "perturbations of the moon and planets" and comets, of course, particularly the one like the "threatening circumstances attending the great comet of 1843". As it happens the only annotation made by the 19th century owner of this book was right here, in the danger section, where they wrote the word again followed by five check/whatever marks.
There would of course be images of the sun in the book, and so was found this lovely small woodcut within the astronomical image (above), measuring in real life at about 5mm. There are a lot of lines on the circumference of this tiny circle.
The "S" stands for Sun.
And another beautifully-design illustration from the same source:
Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655) published this God's-eye-view of creation a few years after his death in the fourth volume (Astronomica) of his six-volume Opera Omina. His friends and supporters of course saw to the publication of this mathematician/philosopher/logician's work1 back there in 1658, so Gassendi--a very prominent thinker from a long-line of thinkers nearly on the verge of great discovery here and there and certainly a witness to it--made his greatest adventure in publishing only in death.
Imaging a physical god is a tricky business in the history of the printed book. Bits of the creator of the universe turn up in book illustrations over hundreds of years, though I am not sure when the very first picture of a part of god appears. The hand of the creator (generally seen as the Primum Mobile) is not terribly uncommon in images of a scientific nature in the 17th and 18th centuries, and is perhaps best exemplified by Robert Fludd's famous Monochord:
Of course there are many instance of the full-bodied god being seen through a break in the clouds, though in all the instances of this that I have seen the tantalizing peak into whatever region it is that this god exists is left entirely blank, a small white space. As so:
(Title page is for the narrative poem Le Metamorfosi, Ovid’s Metamorphoses,
translated into Italian by Gioseppe Horologgi, and published in Venice in 1563. See an earlier post on this blog, A History of Blank and Empty Things: God in a Hole in the Sky, here.)
The eye of god is also not very uncommon, and is represented by an eye and also in a sacred triangle. Less common though are images like Gassendi's, which in a way, in an odd and almost offhand way, give the reader a sense of what it is that god might be seeing in agodly-lineof-sight Perhaps this is incorrect--but in judging his image with others in my experience it seems to me that the representation is a little more "personalized" here than just about anywhere else.