Brain Pickings

A Brief Visual History of Space and Astronomy in 250 Milestones

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From the Big Bang to the end of time, or what a pioneering female astronomer has to do with Sagan’s petty nemeses.

“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena,” Carl Sagan marveled in his iconic Pale Blue Dot. But how, exactly, did that arena come to be and what else populates its decor?

In The Space Book: From the Beginning to the End of Time, 250 Milestones in the History of Space & Astronomy (public library) — the latest installment in the same Sterling series that gave us the history of medicine and the history of physics in 250 milestones each — scientist, public communicator, and astronomy professor Jim Bell traces the evolution of our relationship with the cosmos in more than 500 lavish pages of micro-essays and photographs chronicling the most notable people, ideas, and discoveries in the history of space. From landmark developments like the invention of the modern calendar and the Hubble Space Telescope, to notable figures like Galileo and pioneering female astronomer Maria Mitchell to essential discoveries like radioactivity, dark matter, and the Transit of Venus, the compendium covers 240 historical milestones and 10 intensely mind-bending predictions on the future of space, ranging from the possibility of landing humans on Mars to what happens if black holes “evaporate” to how the universe will end.

More than a mere masterpiece of historical insight, the project is a vital reminder, as the future of space exploration hangs in precarious balance, that understanding our place in the cosmos is an essential part of what it means to be human, a gift bequeathed upon us via centuries of civilization, squandering which would be not only lamentable but a true failure of our inherited privilege.

Arab astronomers study the heavens in this medieval European print from a commentary on Cicero's first-century-BCE Sominum Scipionis (Dream of Scipio)

“A designer without a sense of history is worth nothing,” legendary graphic designer Massimo Vignelli memorably proclaimed, and this is equally true in astronomy. Sensitive to the notion that, like art, all science builds on what came before, Bell writes in the introduction:

In the last 50 years alone, we have been witness to one of the most profound and important bursts of human exploration in history: the Space Age. People have left the planet (some are living off-planet right now!), and a dozen have walked on the Moon. Using robotic proxies and giant telescopes — some launched into space — we have been able to see, up close, the alien landscapes of all the classically known planets, visit asteroids and comets, and view the cosmos in all its glory.

All of this has been made possible because we have, as Sir Isaac Newton put it best, “stood on the shoulders of giants.” No appreciation for the wondrous discoveries of modern astronomy and space exploration would be complete without a thoughtful consideration of the foundations of modern science and experimentation that were built by our ancestors. Many of their achievements were attained at great personal or professional cost, and many others were not recognized as important until decades — even centuries — later.

Caroline Herschel (1829)

Long before reconstructionist Maria Mitchell made history as the first female astronomy professor in the world and the first woman admitted to the American Academy of Sciences, another lady-stargazer — German-born astronomer Caroline Herschel, who discovered Encke’s Comet in 1795 — ironically named after the man who “discovered” it more than twenty years after Herschel. Bell writes:

While there have been significant advances toward establishing gender equity in the practicing of science in the past few decades*, the overall history of astronomical observation and discoveries from antiquity to modern times has been dominated by men. Among the first female pioneers to break into this old boys’ club was the English astronomer Caroline Herschel, the youngest sister to William Herschel, the discoverer of Uranus.

Caroline was an accomplished vocalist and often performed in concerts with her brother in their younger years. Her interest in astronomy appears to have paralleled William’s, and as he began devoting more of his time to telescope making and observations, she joined him as a constant assistant. She became proficient in astronomical calculations and developed a reputation that exceeded her brother’s as a mirror polisher and telescope engineer.

* Let’s not get carried away — here’s a chilling contemporary reality check.

A graphical representation of the Doppler effect: waves are being emitted by a source moving here from right to left. To the observer, waves in front of the source are compressed to a higher frequency (shorter wavelength, or bluer); waves behind the source have a longer wavelength.

Bell observes a curious pattern that reveals a crucial paradigm shift in the evolution of science and the shift toward the cross-pollination of disciplines:

I noticed partway through the research that the number of individuals being singled out for mention was decreasing over time, especially in the entries after the 1950s — the start of the Space Age. This reflects, in my opinion, a recent trend in astronomy and space exploration — and perhaps all scientific fields. Science and exploration used to be fairly individualistic enterprises, usually practiced by wealthy men who worked alone, often under a monarch or patron of some kind and often in fierce competition with other wealthy gentleman scientists. . . .

In contrast, as technology advanced in the latter half of the twentieth century, more and more advances in physics, astronomy, and space exploration began to fall under the realm of what many now call Big Science. Big Science is a group or team enterprise; individuals have expertise in specific parts of the project, but the project spans such a wide range of disciplines that on one team member is expert in all of it.

Bell gives the Manhattan Project of the 1940s (which also, unbeknownst to most, involved a large cohort of unsung female contributors) as a prime example of Big Science, but it’s surprising he doesn’t point to the invention of the space suit itself as the most perfect and apt meta-example. Still, Bell does a remarkable job of not only synthesizing but also organizing chronologically events and individuals the history and order of which is often messy, chaotic, or poorly understood.

Hubble Space Telescope composite of photos of Saturn obtained from 1996 (bottom) to 2000 (top), as our view of the tilt of the planet's rings changed from nearly edge-on to much more open.

It’s delightfully disorienting to consider a time before many of the discoveries and developments Bell chronicles, which we’ve come to take for granted as common, basic cornerstones of our reality. Take, for instance, Saturn’s rings, which were discovered in 1650 by the Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens or the origin of tides, discovered by Sir Isaac Newton in 1686.

Carl Sagan -- astronomer, planetary scientist, author, science popularizer, and host of the acclaimed television series Cosmos -- next to a full-scale model of the Viking Mars Lander in 1980.

Bell writes of Carl Sagan and his iconic 1980 Cosmos series, which single-handedly opened generations’ minds and hearts to the wonders and infinite mesmerism of space and ushered in a new era of scientific storytelling whose legacy can be traced to such contemporary favorites as Radiolab, The Story Collider, and It’s Okay To Be Smart:

Astronomy and space exploration are interesting and exciting topics, yet throughout most of recent history, scientists have not been compelled or encouraged to share their discoveries (or, pointedly, their failures) with the public.

[…]

Cosmos: A Personal Voyage was the most watched PBS series in the world, and was seen by an audience of more than 500 million people. Through Cosmos, Sagan had an enthusiastic and educational conversation with the public about the latest observations and theories concerning some of the biggest questions we all ponder: What is going on up there? Where did it all come from? Why are we here? Are we alone?

Sadly, Sagan met significant resistance from many of his scientific contemporaries for his tireless work popularizing the value of science and space exploration, and was reportedly denied membership in the National Academy of Sciences because of the petty jealousies of other scientists. But Sagan’s ideals and legacy have since spread to a new generation of astronomers and planetary scientists (many who grew up watching Cosmos); his ideals have been promoted worldwide … and they have been embraced by a scientific community that now regards as essential the public communication and understanding of science in our modern world.

Examples of some of Galileo's 1610 sketches of craters, hills, and other features of the Moon.

While the task of compressing space history into just 250 milestones is a herculean one, The Space Book accomplishes it with admirable rigor, breadth and balance — a feat at the intersection of the editorial and curatorial: on the one hand, the short page-long essays on each of the milestones offer beautifully synthesized background and insight on how the specific person, event, or idea shaped the course of space history; on the other, the very act of selecting and ordering 250 such notable nodes is itself a masterful creative accomplishment.

Complement it with The First Book of Space Travel, the lovely vintage gem by a female science author and illustrator, this visual chronicle of the Space Race, and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s indispensable Space Chronicles.

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