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.
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.
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.
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.”)
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.
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.
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.