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31 OCTOBER, 2014

Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time in 4,000 Years of Mapping the Universe

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A visual catalog of our quintessential quest to understand the cosmos and our place in it.

Long before Galileo pioneered the telescope, antagonizing the church and unleashing a “hummingbird effect” of innovation, humanity had been busy cataloging the heavens through millennia of imaginative speculative maps of the cosmos. We have always sought to make visible the invisible forces we long to understand, the mercy and miracle of existence, and nothing beckons to us with more intense allure than the majesty and mystery of the universe.

Four millennia of that mesmerism-made-visible is what journalist, photographer, and astrovisualization scholar Michael Benson explores with great dedication and discernment in Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time (public library) — a pictorial catalog of our quest to order the cosmos and grasp our place in it, a sensemaking process defined by what Benson aptly calls our “gradually dawning, forever incomplete situational awareness.” From glorious paintings of the creation myth predating William Blake’s work by centuries to the pioneering galaxy drawing that inspired Van Gogh’s Starry Night to NASA’s maps of the Apollo 11 landing site, the images remind us that the cosmos — like Whitman, like ourselves — is vast and contains multitudes. This masterwork of scholarship also attests, ever so gently, ever so powerfully, to the value of the “ungoogleable” — a considerable portion of Benson’s bewitching images comes from the vaults of the world’s great science libraries and archives, bringing to light a wealth of previously unseen treasures.

Illustration from Henry Russell’s 1892 treatise 'Observations of the Transit of Venus.'

Courtesy of The Royal Society

The book’s title is an allusion to Italo Calvino’s beloved Cosmicomics, a passage from which Benson deploys as the epigraph:

In the universe now there was no longer a container and a thing contained, but only a general thickness of signs, superimposed and coagulated, occupying the whole volume of space; it was constantly being dotted, minutely, a network of lines and scratches and reliefs and engravings; the universe was scrawled over on all sides, along all its dimensions. There was no longer any way to establish a point of reference; the Galaxy went on turning but I could no longer count the revolutions, any point could be the point of departure, any sign heaped up with the others could be mine, but discovering it would have served no purpose, because it was clear that, independent of signs, space didn’t exist and perhaps had never existed.

Long before the notion of vacuum existed in cosmology, English physician and cosmologist Robert Fludd captured the concept of non-space in his 1617 creation series, which depicts multiple chaotic fires subsiding until a central starlike structure becomes visible amid concentric rings of smoke and debris. Even though Fludd believed in a geocentric cosmology, this image comes strikingly close to current theories of solar system formation.

Courtesy of U. of Oklahoma History of Science collections

Paintings of Saturn by German astronomer-artist Maria Clara Eimmart, a pioneering woman in science, from 1693–1698. Eimmart's depictions are based on a 1659 engraving by Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens, the first to confirm that Saturn’s mysterious appendages, which had confounded astronomers since Galileo, were in fact 'a thin flat ring, nowhere touching.' What makes Eimmart's painting unique is that it combines the observations of more than ten astronomers into a depiction of superior accuracy.

Dipartimento di Fisica e Astronomia, Universita di Bologna

In 1845, Anglo-Irish astronomer William Parsons, the 3rd Earl of Rosse, equipped his castle with a giant six-ton telescope, soon nicknamed the 'Leviathan,' which remained the largest telescope in the world until 1918. Despite the cloudy Irish skies, Lord Rosse managed to glimpse and draw the spellbinding spiral structures of what were thought to be nebulae within the Milky Way. This print, based on Lord Rosse’s drawing of one such nebula — M51, known today as the Whirlpool Galaxy — became a sensation throughout Europe and inspired Van Gogh's iconic 'The Starry Night.'

Courtesy of the Wolbach Library, Harvard

The project, which does for space what Cartographies of Time did for the invisible dimension, also celebrates the natural marriage of art and science. These early astronomers were often spectacular draughtsmen as well — take, for instance, Johannes Hevelius and his groundbreaking catalog of stars. As Benson points out, art and science were “essentially fused” until about the 17th century and many of the creators of the images in the book were also well-versed in optics, anatomy, and the natural sciences.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo's, envisions the creation of the Ptolemaic universe by an omnipotent creator.

Courtesy of Biblioteca Nacional de España

De Holanda was fascinated by the geometry of the cosmos, particularly the triangular form and its interplay with the circle.

Courtesy of Biblioteca Nacional de España

This cryptic and unsettling 'Fool’s Cap Map of the World' (1580–1590), made by an unknown artist, appropriates French mathematician and cartographer Oronce Finé’s cordiform, or heart-shaped, projection of the Earth; the world in this iconic image is dressed in a jester’s belled cap, beneath which a Latin inscription from Ecclesiastes reads: 'The number of fools is infinite.'

Public domain via Wikimedia

The book is, above all, a kind of conceptual fossil record of how our understanding of the universe evolved, visualizing through breathtaking art the “fits and starts of ignorance” by which science progresses — many of the astronomers behind these enchanting images weren’t “scientists” in the modern sense but instead dabbled in alchemy, astrology, and various rites driven by religion and superstition. (For instance, Isaac Newton, often celebrated as the greatest scientist of all time, spent a considerable amount of his youth self-flagellating over his sins, and trying to discover “The Philosopher’s Stone,” a mythic substance believed to transmute ordinary metals into gold. And one of the gorgeous images in Benson’s catalog comes from a 1907 children’s astronomy book I happen to own, titled The Book of Stars for Young People, the final pages of which have always struck me with their counterblast: “Far out in space lies this island of a system, and beyond the gulfs of space are other suns, with other systems: some may be akin to ours and some quite different… The whole implies design, creation, and the working of a mighty intelligence; and yet there are small, weak creatures here on this little globe who refuse to believe in God.”)

A 1493 woodcut by German physician and cartographer Hartmann Schedel, depicting the seventh day, or Sabbath, when God rested.

Courtesy of the Huntington Library

The Nebra Sky Disc (2000–1600 B.C.), excavated illegally in Germany in 1999, is considered to be both humanity's first-known portable astronomical instrument and the oldest-known visual depiction of celestial objects.

Public domain via Wikimedia

One of the phases of the moon from Selenographia, world's first lunar atlas completed by German-Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius in 1647 after years of obsessive observations. Hevelius also created history's first true moon map.

Courtesy of the Wolbach Library, Harvard

Beginning in 1870, French-born artist and astronomer Étienne Trouvelot spent a decade producing a series of spectacular illustrations of celestial bodies and cosmic phenomena. In 1872, he joined the Harvard College Observatory and began using its powerful telescopes in perfecting his drawings. His pastel illustrations, including this chromolithograph of Mare Humorum, a vast impact basin on the southwest side of the Earth-facing hemisphere of the moon, were among the first serious attempts to enlist art in popularizing the results of observations using technology developed for scientific research.

Courtesy of the U. of Michigan Library

Étienne Trouvelot's 1873 engravings of solar phenomena, produced during his first year at the Harvard College Observatory for the institution's journal. The legend at the bottom reveals that the distance between the two prominences in the lower part of the engraving is one hundred thousand miles, more than 12 times the diameter of Earth. Despite the journal's modest circulation, such engravings were soon co-opted by more mainstream publications and became trailblazing tools of science communication that greatly influenced public understanding of the universe's scale.

Courtesy of the Wolbach Library, Harvard

What makes Benson’s project especially enchanting is the strange duality it straddles: On the one hand, the longing to make tangible and visible the complex forces that rule our existence is a deeply human one; on the other, the notion of simplifying such expansive complexities into static images seems paradoxical to a dangerous degree — something best captured by pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell when she marveled: “The world of learning is so broad, and the human soul is so limited in power! We reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us.”

Unable to seize the infinite, are we fooling ourselves by trying to reduce it into a seizable visual representation? At what point do we, like Calvino’s protagonist, begin to mistake the presence or absence of “signs” for the presence or absence of space itself? It calls to mind Susan Sontag’s concern about how photography’s “aesthetic consumerism” endangers the real experience of life, which the great physicist Werner Heisenberg channeled decades earlier in a remark that exposes the dark side of visualizing the universe:

Contemporary thought is endangered by the picture of nature drawn by science. This danger lies in the fact that the picture is now regarded as an exhaustive account of nature itself so that science forgets that in its study of nature it is studying its own picture.

Plate from Thomas Wright’s 1750 treatise 'An Original Theory,' depicting Wright's trailblazing notion that the universe is composed of multiple galaxies.

Courtesy of the Wolbach Library, Harvard

And yet awe, the only appropriate response to the cosmos, is a visceral feeling by nature and thus has no choice but to engage our “aesthetic consumerism” — which is why the yearning at the heart of Benson’s project is a profoundly human one. He turns to the words of the pioneering English astronomer and mathematician Thomas Wright, whose 1750 book An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe Benson considers “one of the best-case studies of scientific reasoning through image.” Wright marvels:

What inconceivable vastness and magnificence of power does such a frame unfold! Suns crowding upon Suns, to our weak sense, indefinitely distant from each other; and myriads of myriads of mansions, like our own, peopling infinity, all subject to the same Creator’s will; a universe of worlds, all decked with mountains, lakes, and seas, herbs, animals, and rivers, rocks, caves, and trees… Now, thanks to the sciences, the scene begins to open to us on all sides, and truths scarce to have been dreamt of before persons of observation had proved them possible, invade our senses with a subject too deep for the human understanding, and where our very reason is lost in infinite wonders.

Illuminated solar eclipse prediction tables by German miniaturist Joachinus de Gigantibus, from the 1478 scientific treatise 'Astronomia' by Tuscan-Neopolitan humanist Christianus Prolianus.

Courtesy of Rylands Medieval Collection, U. of Manchester

NASA's 1979 geological map of the south polar region of the moon, part of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Courtesy of USGS/NASA

Illustration from G. E. Mitton’s 'The Book of Stars for Young People,' 1907

Courtesy of AAVSO

Artist-astronomer Étienne Trouvelot's drawing of the total solar eclipse of July 29, 1878, in Wyoming.

Courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County

Cosmigraphics is a treasure trove in its entirety. Complement it with a tour of parallel facets of humanity’s visual imagination, Umberto Eco’s atlas of legendary lands and Manuel Lima’s visual history of tree-like diagrams, then revisit the little-known story of how Galileo influenced Shakespeare and this lovely children’s book about space exploration.

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31 OCTOBER, 2014

Butterflies and Iron Bolts: What Virginia Woolf Teaches Us About Great Design and the Value of the Ungoogleable

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Celebrating the significance of small things and the iron bolts that hold butterfly wings together.

In 2002, a small and confounding book titled Schott’s Original Miscellany (public library) was released to very little fanfare by British independent press Bloomsbury, publishers of such diverse and beloved offerings as Harry Potter and Lost Cat. The author of this unusual book was a young man named Ben Schott, whose level of public prominence was closer to that of a stray feline than of J.K. Rowling. And yet, within weeks, the book — a quirky and beautifully designed catalog of curiosities, partway between a Victorian encyclopedia a century after the golden age of Victorian encyclopedias and a meticulously curated Tumblr a decade before the golden age of Tumblr — became the publishing sensation of the year. Soon, it had sold a million copies and was translated into thirteen languages.

In this magnificent Design Matters conversation with Debbie Millman, Schott — who identifies neither with being a writer nor with being a designer but describes himself instead as “a writer who uses design and a designer who uses word” — shares the unlikely, remarkably heartening story of his success. Folded into it are Schott’s reflections on how his father’s obscure scientific papers on the history of the footnote shaped his miscellaneous mind, what Virginia Woolf can teach us about the secret of great design and craftsmanship, and why the art of finding the ungoogleable is of ever-increasing value today. Highlights below.

On choosing creative purpose over a profitable or prestigious occupation, something with which young William James also tussled, and dropping out of advertising:

If you look up and you don’t want to get to the top of the ladder you’re climbing, then why are you climbing the ladder?

On being self-taught as a photographer and learning the craft through apprenticeship, via absorption:

That’s how I learned — you find a standard and think, “This guy is really good, or this girl is really good, and if I can be that good, I’m getting there.”

On being inspired by Virginia Woolf — his first book opens with a quote from The Common Reader: “Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small.” — and what Woolf, who herself had strong opinions on craftsmanship, can teach us about the secret of excellence in design and any craft:

I’m a fan Virginia Woolf — I’m a real fan of Mrs. Dalloway more than anything else she’s written. But what, I think, seduces her work is that sense that small things are significant. There’s another great quote [from To the Lighthouse] which sums up one of my theories of design, to the extent that I’m entitled to have any theories, which is: “light and evanescent but held together by bolts of iron.”

[Design] must be, on the surface, like a butterfly’s wing — but underneath it must be clamped together with bolts of iron…

This is what I think is the secret of so much craft — to make it look effortless and evanescent, like a butterfly’s wing, but it needs to have structure, rigidity, purpose.

But perhaps Schott’s most pause-giving point — at least for me, as someone who spends a considerable amount of time dwelling in archives and literature of which there is no pervious trace online — has to do with how he found the curiosities and quotes for the book in a pre-Google age. I frequently say that books are the original internet — every footnote, every citation, every allusion is essentially a hyperlink to another text, to another idea — and Schott captures this notion beautifully by inviting us into a time-machine that exposes all we’ve come to take for granted in just a few years:

Information totally changed in the last fifteen years, since this book came out. You have to remember what the mindset was then. So a lot of it was [spending] time in libraries and stumbling across things. People said, “Oh, have you seen this?” It was a wonderful paper chase. And anyone who’s spent time in libraries knows: you follow the footnote; you get taken for a walk — one footnote leads to another footnote leads to another footnote. By the time you know it, you’re drowning in paper…

The point was not to get stuff that was out there — it was trying to find things that no one else had talked about. Which is increasingly hard, by the way — to find stuff that is ungoogleable.

Schott’s Original Miscellany, which Schott describes as a book about “everything on the back of your mind and the tip of your tongue [and] all the things that you think you know or would like to know but don’t really know,” was followed by Schott’s Food and Drink Miscellany in 2004, Schott’s Sporting, Gaming, and Idling Miscellany in 2005, and Schott’s Quintessential Miscellany in 2011.

If you aren’t yet subscribed to Design Matters — the world’s first podcast about design, which celebrates its 10th birthday in just a few months — remedy the situation immediately and gladden yourself on iTunes.

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31 OCTOBER, 2014

William James on Choosing Purpose Over Profit and the Life-Changing Power of a Great Mentor

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“After all, the great problem of life seems to be how to keep body and soul together.”

William James is celebrated as one of the most influential philosophers of all time. His publication of The Principles of Psychology in 1890 established him as the father of American psychology. His 1901 treatise The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, originally delivered at the prestigious Gifford Lectures, remains one of the most important theological works of all time and inspired Carl Sagan’s superb The Varieties of Scientific Experience. But if James were alive today, his contributions might well be dismissed under the fashionable accusation of privilege — he was born into a wealthy family and his father, a prominent theologian, was independently wealthy himself a century and a half before the term “independently wealthy” entered the vernacular; his godfather was Ralph Waldo Emerson. But he also endured an undue share of physical hardship, suffering from a range of physical ailments since childhood — near-blindness, debilitating back pain, and various skin and stomach conditions — as well as regular bouts of severe, suicidal depression since early adulthood. His life was defined by dualities in deeper ways, too — James was a man straddling two epochs as a scholar of theology in an era when the dogmatic beliefs of the previous generation where past the point of repair and a science-minded skeptic before the golden age of twentieth-century scientific discovery.

And yet despite these vexing dualities, James navigated his life with tremendous faith in the power of personal choice in shaping one’s destiny — which included, as it always has and always will, the discomfiting luxury of making difficult decisions. Nearly four decades before he came to put this conviction into words in his timeless treatise on habit“We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone.” — he enacted it in his own life as he stood on the precipice of a monumental choice, the kind all of us have to make at one point or another, the value of which we only ever appreciate in hindsight.

In 1861, 19-year-old William enrolled into Harvard to study science after a short apprenticeship with the artist William Morris Hunt. But as he immersed himself in the pursuit of a medical degree, he grew increasingly disillusioned with the prospects laid before him by this established path to a “successful” life as a respectable doctor — a life of steady income and steady petrification of his deeper aspirations. He knew he had to confront the trying choice between profit and purpose. (Around the same time, halfway around the world, a young Leo Tolstoy was tussling with a parallel tension between income and ideals.)

In a letter to his cousin Kitty from September of 1863, found in the altogether illuminating The Letters of William James, Vol. 1 (public library; free download), 21-year-old James outlines his choices with equal parts exasperation and snark:

I have four alternatives: Natural History, Medicine, Printing, Beggary… After all, the great problem of life seems to be how to keep body and soul together, and I have to consider lucre. To study natural science, I know I should like, but the prospect of supporting a family on $600 a year is not one of those rosy dreams of the future with which the young are said to be haunted. Medicine would pay, and I should still be dealing with subjects which interest me — but how much drudgery and of what an unpleasant kind is there!

He adds a lament about the crippling industrial model of higher education, which shoves young people down the conveyer belt of specialization and careerism before they’ve had a chance to find their true purpose — a lament equally, if not more, valid today:

The worst of this matter is that everyone must more or less act with insufficient knowledge — “go it blind,” as they say. Few can afford the time to try what suits them.

In a letter to his mother later that month, James exorcizes the growing urgency and unease of his impending choice:

I feel very much the importance of making soon a final choice of my business in life. I stand now at the place where the road forks. One branch leads to material comfort, the flesh-pots; but it seems a kind of selling of one’s soul. The other to mental dignity and independence; combined, however, with physical penury.

James, longing to be a family man, peers into the future and considers how choosing the pursuit of purpose over profit would affect his imaginary future love, to whom he refers by a Shakespearean allusion, as he revisits his four options:

If I myself were the only one concerned I should not hesitate an instant in my choice. But it seems hard on Mrs. W. J., “that not impossible she,” to ask her to share an empty purse and a cold hearth. On one side is science, upon the other business (the honorable, honored and productive business of printing seems most attractive), with medicine, which partakes of the advantages of both, between them, but which has drawbacks of its own. I confess I hesitate. I fancy there is a fond maternal cowardice which would make you and every other mother contemplate with complacency the worldly fatness of a son, even if obtained by some sacrifice of his “higher nature.” But I fear there might be some anguish in looking back from the pinnacle of prosperity (necessarily reached, if not by eating dirt, at least by renouncing some divine ambrosia) over the life you might have led in the pure pursuit of truth. It seems as if one could not afford to give that up for any bribe, however great.

And yet, admitting to being “undecided” still, James is aware of the rare privilege that renders him among those few young people who “can afford the time to try what suits them.” He tells his mother with a self-conscious wink:

I want you to become familiar with the notion that I may stick to science, however, and drain away at your property for a few years more.

James did choose to stick to science. Around the time he wrote that letter to his mother, he changed majors from Chemistry to Comparative Anatomy and Physiology — the Harvard department where he lucked into one of the most formative relationships of his life. There, he came to study under a professor named Jeffries Wyman, whose influence on James’s ideals and decisions became a spectacular testament to how unsung mentors and champions shape creative geniuses. A brilliant yet humble man — a perennially rare combination — he imparted on his pupils, by way of personal example, enduring values of kindness, generosity, humility, unflinching integrity, and resolute refusal to advance himself at anyone else’s expense. Under Wyman’s wing during those two critical years of determining the course of his entire life, James blossomed into himself — his ideals, his values, his character — with courageous authenticity. He would later come to write of his mentor:

His extraordinary effect on all who knew him is to be accounted for by the one word, character. Never was a man so absolutely without detractors. The quality which every one first thinks of in him is his extraordinary modesty, of which his unfailing geniality and serviceableness, his readiness to confer with and listen to younger men… Next were his integrity, and his complete and simple devotion to objective truth. These qualities were what gave him such incomparable fairness of judgment in both scientific and worldly matters… He had if anything too little of the ego in his composition, and all his faults were excesses of virtue. A little more restlessness of ambition, and a little more willingness to use other people for his purposes, would easily have made him more abundantly productive, and would have greatly increased the sphere of his effectiveness and fame. But his example on us younger men, who had the never-to-be-forgotten advantage of working by his side, would then have been, if not less potent, at least different from what we now remember it; and we prefer to think of him forever as the paragon that he was of goodness, disinterestedness, and single-minded love of the truth.

James graduated from Harvard with a degree in medicine, but wasn’t interested in practicing. Instead, he followed his calling and set out to study philosophy and psychology on his own, imbibing self-education with diligent visits to the Harvard and Boston libraries. He persevered through failing eyesight, debilitating depression, and frequent brushes with the very “beggary” he foresaw and feared. Decades later, having followed his purpose to become America’s first great psychologist, he joked: “I never had any philosophic instruction, the first lecture on psychology I ever heard being the first I ever gave.”

The Letters of William James is full of soul-stretching insight into one of the greatest minds and most visionary spirits humanity has ever known, featuring James’s meditations on melancholy, happiness, writing, creativity, and human nature. His brother, the great novelist Henry James, captures this beautifully in the introduction to the 1920 edition:

Life spoke to him in even more ways than to most men, and he responded to its superabundant confusion with passion and insatiable curiosity. His spiritual development was a matter of intense personal experience.

Complement this particular snippet with a recentering read on how to find your purpose, then revisit Alan Watts on money vs. wealth and Eleanor Roosevelt on living with integrity.

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