Britain’s Royal Astronomical Society looks to an age-old craft to celebrate its history – and future.
The Royal Astronomical Society celebrates two centuries and arranges its own present.
THE ROYAL ASTRONOMICAL SOCIETY (RAS) is celebrating its 200th anniversary in 2020 and to mark the milestone it is making a commemorative quilt.
That may sound a little peculiar, but the craft of quilting has a long history in Britain – longer than modern astronomy’s.
When RAS was established in January 1820, astronomers were only beginning to explore the idea that there was a world out there different from what classical wisdom said. According to astrophysicist Chris Flynn, from Swinburne University, Melbourne, who is stitching a square for the quilt, it was an “immense period of discovery”.
“As soon as they got telescopes onto these ‘perfect bodies’ they saw mountains and valleys and craters and things changing. That really shook up people’s basic understanding of where we were in the Universe.”
Quilting was already centuries old when the RAS was born. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the wealthy wore professionally made quilted jackets and breeches, with petticoats and waistcoats following soon after. In towns and villages, families and community members would come together and stitch quilts to mark important life events.
Inspired by this communal aspect of the quilting tradition, the RAS has turned to volunteer participants to help create the bicentennial quilt. You don’t need to be an expert embroiderer to get involved: the project is open to everyone.
The finished quilt will be double-sided and close to four square metres in size. One side will feature the solar system – in honour of Ellen Baker’s 1876 Solar System quilt, which depicts human understanding of our Solar System at the time. The two moons of Mars aren’t shown – they weren’t discovered until a year later.
The other side of the quilt will comprise a patchwork of squares depicting the current knowledge of astronomy and geophysics, stitched together in a grid. Flynn’s patch will feature a great mystery of modern astronomy: the elusive fast radio bursts whose origin is the subject of much conjecture.
As for the 300-year celebrations in 2120, quilt patches may very well depict answers to questions plaguing astronomy today. “A century from now, questions for today’s astronomers will almost certainly be answered and there will be a whole bunch of new questions we can’t even think of yet,” says Flynn. AMELIA NICHELE
Become part of the RAS’S history by contributing a space-inspired square: global submissions are welcome. Find information about the dimensions and project timings at www. ras.ac.uk/news-and-press/news/rasbicentennial-quilt and get stitching.