The art and the sci­ence

Penticton Herald - - OPINION - KEN TAP­PING Ken Tap­ping is an as­tronomer with the Na­tional Re­search Coun­cil’s Do­min­ion Ra­dio Astro­phys­i­cal Ob­ser­va­tory, Pen­tic­ton.

The Royal Green­wich Ob­ser­va­tory was founded in 1675, un­der com­mand from King Charles II to aid nav­i­ga­tion. It is the lo­ca­tion of the zero de­grees of lon­gi­tude merid­ian and where Green­wich Mean Time (now called Uni­ver­sal Time) was set up.

The first “As­tronomer Royal” put in charge of the ob­ser­va­tory was John Flam­steed. One of his charges was to pro­duce a set of pre­cise star charts that could be used for mar­itime nav­i­ga­tion.

Over the years London ex­panded to and be­yond the ob­ser­va­tory. The re­sult­ing light pol­lu­tion made use­ful ob­ser­va­tions im­pos­si­ble, and the es­tab­lish­ment was closed. Today the Royal Green­wich Ob­ser­va­tory, lo­cated at the top of a hill over­look­ing the Thames, is a mu­seum. One of the main ex­hibits is Flam­steed’s “At­las Coe­lestis”, his at­las of the sky. It is a beau­ti­ful and pre­cise piece of work.

What is im­me­di­ately strik­ing is that along with the stars be­ing marked in their ex­act po­si­tions, as needed for nav­i­ga­tion, the myth­i­cal fig­ures the con­stel­la­tions rep­re­sent are drawn in. The item is not just a sci­en­tific doc­u­ment; it is a work of art in its own right.

There are many other ex­hibits. In ad­di­tion to in­stru­ments used at the ob­ser­va­tory, the col­lec­tion in­cludes old as­tro­nom­i­cal in­stru­ments from around the world.

Many of th­ese show the same com­bi­na­tion of sci­ence and art. They are made of brass and ebony, beau­ti­fully pol­ished.

The pre­cise scales and grad­u­a­tions needed for their sci­en­tific ap­pli­ca­tions are ac­com­pa­nied by de­pic­tions of myth­i­cal fig­ures rel­e­vant to astron­omy. To the crafts­men mak­ing the in­stru­ments, aes­thetic ap­peal was as im­por­tant as sci­en­tific per­for­mance.

The An­cient Greeks as­signed re­spon­si­bil­ity for the var­i­ous cre­ative arts to the Muses, daugh­ters of Zeus.

There were nine of them, each re­spon­si­ble for an art/sci­ence: Cal­liope (epic poetry), Clio (his­tory), Euterpe (mu­sic and lyric poetry), Erato (love poetry), Melpomene (tragic drama), Poly­hym­nia (sa­cred poetry and hymns), Terp­si­chore (dance), Thalia (com­edy), and Ura­nia (astron­omy). For the An­cient Greeks, astron­omy was one of the cre­ative arts. It is also clear that those Greeks were re­ally big on poetry.

Today we gen­er­ally aim the re­sources at pro­duc­ing the max­i­mum sci­en­tific re­turn, with aes­thet­ics be­ing sec­ondary.

How­ever even then, artis­tic aes­thet­ics can be a pow­er­ful sci­ence tool. For ex­am­ple, a few years ago a vis­it­ing as­tronomer gave a talk here at the ob­ser­va­tory that was a bit of a rev­e­la­tion.

She took a se­lec­tion of im­ages ob­tained us­ing the Hub­ble Space Te­le­scope as part of a num­ber of sci­en­tific in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

The orig­i­nals were im­pres­sive, but what she did with them made them amaz­ing. She just ro­tated and clipped the im­ages to get them ar­tis­ti­cally com­posed prop­erly.

If an im­age is ar­ti­fi­cially coloured, pick­ing the right colours makes all the dif­fer­ence. This made the im­ages eas­ier to look at, and eas­ier to grasp the sci­en­tific po­ten­tial.

Art has al­ways been an in­ter­face through which we come to terms with the world. In the past we cel­e­brated that not just by pur­su­ing sci­en­tific util­ity, but also build­ing in some artis­tic self-ex­pres­sion. The func­tion of Stone­henge could have been achieved with a ring of rocks or sticks in the ground.

In­stead its cre­ators took on the an­cient equiv­a­lent of build­ing a cathe­dral. Even in today’s em­pha­sis on util­i­tar­ian in­stru­men­ta­tion, art sneaks in. We take pic­tures of the ge­o­met­ri­cal ar­range­ment of ra­dio te­le­scope an­ten­nas in the desert, or ra­dio or op­ti­cal tele­scopes against the back­drop of the Milky Way. Or it could be a pic­ture of an ob­ser­va­tory glint­ing in a moun­tain­top sun­set.

At 2:02 PST on Sept 22 the Sun crosses the equa­tor head­ing south, a mo­ment called the au­tumn equinox. Saturn lies low in the south­west. Spec­tac­u­larly bril­liant Venus rises in the early hours, with Mars and Mer­cury deeper in the dawn glow. The Moon will be New on the 19th.

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