Back in the late 19th century, when astrophotography was still in its infancy, stargazers had to get creative if they wanted to take snapshots of the heavens. Luckily, there were people around like Étienne Léopold Trouvelot, a talented French artist with a penchant for astronomy. Trouvelot moved to the States with his family when he was in his 20s, and is probably best known for an unfortunate incident in which he introduced the gypsy moth into North America – now a notorious pest of hardwood trees.
The upside of this mishap, though, was that Trouvelot turned to astronomy and began to draw what he saw in the night sky. For some of his illustrations – the close-ups of the planets and the Moon, for example – Trouvelot used some of the most powerful telescopes available at the time, such as the 26″ refractor at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C.. For others, like his depictions of the comet and the meteor shower, Trouvelot just drew what he observed with his naked eye.
In 1882, the artist published fifteen of his drawings in a book – the Trouvelot Astronomical Drawings Manual. Here are some of my favourites, starting off with a stunning aurora and a Cyclops-esque Jupiter:
The aurora borealis (Northern Lights), observed 1st March 1872
The planet Jupiter, observed 1st November 1880
Last year, everyone’s favourite Icelandic songstress (that’s Björk, in case you’re wondering) released Biophilia, an album inspired by science and nature. The song “Moon“, for instance, features repetitive musical cycles that pay tribute to the lunar cycle, whilst the bassline in “Thunderbolt” is the sound of a Tesla coil’s electrical discharge.
Probably the most accessible track on the album, though, is “Cosmogony”, a hymn-like song about the birth of the universe, built around a beautiful, heart-rending melody. Each of its four verses describes a different version of the creation story: Native American, Sanskrit, Aboriginal, and then, finally, the scientific version:
“They say back then our universe wasn’t even there / Until a sudden bang / And then there was light, was sound, was matter / And it all became the world we know.”
Here’s a performance of the song recorded for Jools Holland last November. It’s slightly different to the album track, with some extra backing vocals provided by an all-female choir, and some marching percussion in the final verse. I defy anyone not to get at least a little bit emotional watching this:
For more science-themed music, click the image below to read an article based on my Songs of Science posts, written for the new issue of Guru magazine. There’s even an accompanying mixtape (well, a YouTube playlist anyway).
Ever wondered what the difference is between meteorites, meteors and meteoroids? In this 12-minute ode to her astrophysicist sister, “Emily”, Joanna Newsom attempts to explain:
“The meteorite is a source of the light / And the meteor’s just what we see / And the meteoroid is a stone that’s devoid of the fire that propelled it to thee.”
The only problem is that Joanna’s got meteorites and meteoroids mixed up. Meteoroids are small chunks of rock and debris in the Solar System. In other words, they’re the “source of the light” because they glow if they fall through a planet’s atmosphere. If a meteoroid reaches the Earth’s surface and survives impact, it becomes known as a meteorite – a dull stone, “devoid of fire”. A meteor is just the visible path of a meteoroid as it passes through a planet’s atmosphere (a shooting star), so she got that one right.
But does anyone really care about this little mix-up? Probably not. And in any case, a small amount of artistic license is quickly forgiven when the song’s as beautiful as this one.
Click here to read all of the previous “Songs of Science” posts.
This article first appeared in the February 2012 edition of an awesome new science magazine called Guru. You can download the magazine for free here.
Please listen carefully. There is life on Europa. I repeat: there is life on Europa…like huge strands of wet seaweed, crawling along the ground…Imagine an oak tree…flattened out by gravity…Tendrils, stamens, waving feebly…”
Tendrils, stamens, waving feebly (credit: George L Smyth)
Professor Chang is stranded on Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa. His air supply is rapidly running out and he’s got no chance of being rescued; all he can do is die with dignity and hope that somebody hears his final radio message.
“I’ve only two requests to make…When the taxonomists classify this creature, I hope they’ll name it after me. And – when the next ship comes home – ask them to take our bones back to China.”
Fiction becoming fact
If this sounds like science fiction, well, that’s because it is. This gloomy scenario takes place near the beginning of 2010: Odyssey Two, Arthur C. Clarke’s sequel to his most famous novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
In Odyssey Two, Clarke imagines Europa to be teeming with extraterrestrial life, sustained by a liquid ocean beneath the moon’s surface. He was undoubtedly inspired by images sent back by the Voyager space probes during the late 1970s, which revealed Europa’s surface to be covered with a smooth shell of ice, raising the possibility of an underground watery ocean.
Europa has since become one of our Solar System’s most enigmatic bodies. Evidence now points to a huge ocean under its icy surface, possibly containing twice as much water as all of the Earth’s oceans combined. And where there’s water, life is often not too far away. Suddenly, Arthur C. Clarke’s story doesn’t seem quite so outlandish… Continue reading
Ever since 1998, Google has been brightening up its homepage with “Google doodles”, playfully customised logos which celebrate a current event or the birthday of a famous person. The first ever doodle was created when the Google founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, attended the Burning Man festival and wanted to let Google users know that they were “out of office”.
Since then, the Google doodle has become a bit of a pop culture phenomenon. There have now been over 1,000 doodles, celebrating events ranging from the anniversary of the ice cream sundae to Freddie Mercury’s 65th Birthday (this one needs to be seen!).
A couple days ago, being the geek that I am, I got quite excited by a science-themed doodle – a strati-tastic version of the Google logo in celebration of Nicolas Steno, an important figure in modern geology.
So, noticing that Google keeps an archive of all of its doodles, I thought I’d find out which other scientists had been honoured by Google’s creative bods. Turns out there’s quite a lot… Continue reading
I thought I’d post up this children’s poem I recently finished called “Johnny and the Wig”. The illustrations were drawn by the fantastic Victoria Bjørge.
Truth be told, it’s not very science-related, but there are a lot of stars, and a visit to the Moon…
Comets get a lot of bad press. Before science came along, they were usually seen as bad omens from the gods – “tokens of impending doom” in the words of one Roman astrologer.
Even now that we know comets to be lumps of ice and rock (‘dirty snowballs’) flying through space, countless movies portray them as harbingers of doom and destroyers of mankind. One such film, Night of the Comet, deserves a special mention, if only for being brave enough to mix apocalyptic horror, big 1980s hair, and a soundtrack featuring Cyndi Lauper.
Night of the Comet...space, zombies and big hair
Our fear of comets (and of asteroids, their less icy cousins) is perhaps not completely irrational. After all, an impact is believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, and the Earth will probably encounter another deadly near-Earth object sometime in its future (at which point humans may or may not still be around).
But comets also deserve some praise, because we probably wouldn’t be here without them. To find out why, we need to travel back in time to the beginning of the Solar System… Continue reading