April 6, 2021

Metascience Review of Cosmos: The Art and Science of the Universe


The science of the Cosmos and all the art in between

Roberta M. Olson and Jay M. Pasachoff: Cosmos: The art and science of the universe. Reaktion Books, 2019, 304 pp, 49.95 HB

Laura Søvsø Thomasen1

* Laura Søvsø Thomasen [email protected]

The Royal Danish Library, Copenhagen, Denmark 

Accepted: 13 January 2021
© The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature B.V. 2021

Like many other books on the relationship between art and science that have been published over the past couple of decades, Cosmos—The Art and Science of the Universe is a beautifully illustrated and curated coffee table book that presents both images from the world of art as well as scientific imagery. Roberta M. Olson and Jay M. Pasachoff’s book takes a look at how artists have interpreted science and scientific breakthroughs in astronomy through the ages. One of the great strengths of Olson and Pasachoff’s book is that it is the culmination of a 40-year collaboration between an art historian, Roberta J. M. Olson, Professor Emerita of Art History, and an astronomer, Jay M. Pasachoff, Field Memorial Professor of Astronomy at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Another strength is that their book focuses only on astronomy, whereas many other books on the relationship between science and art deal with more than one scientific discipline. Examples include works by Martin Kemp like Seen/Unseen (2006), H. Robin’s Scientific Image from Cave to Computer, and Eliane Stroberg’s Art and Science (2001). Cosmos thus consists of ten chapters, each devoted to an astronomical phenomenon or theme, for example: how astronomy is personified as muses in art, different world views, e.g. geocentric versus heliocentric, the sun, including eclipses, comets, meteors and meteor showers, planets, the big bang, moon(s), and eclipses, aurora borealis, and photographs of space. The chapters are more or less chronologically structured emphasising the artistic and scientific images from Antiquity to the present day.

One of the great things about the book is that there are both very familiar images that are often used when showcasing the visual culture of science, but also some very unfamiliar examples from art history have been included. Of the more “traditional” images in the book we find well-known examples from both art and science. It is thus not surprising that works like Johannes Vermeer’s “Astronomer” (1668), Albrecht Dürer’s “Melencolia” (1514), or Donato Creti and Raimondo Manzini’s “Astronomical Observations” (1711) are included. Nor is it surprising to see 

scientific works like Galileo Galilei’s The Starry Messenger (1610), James Cook’s observations of the transit of Venus (1769), or images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. These well-known works from art and astronomy alike are the backbone of the story of how art and science developed the imagery of astronomy and the cosmos through the ages. But what is more interesting and quite unique for this book is that the authors have included examples that would usually not be found in this type of book. The book thus contains examples from fashion, specifically, clothes and jewellery, design, board games, and arts and crafts, like, for instance, a quilt depicting a meteor shower from 1895 to 1896 by American folk artist Harriet Powers or French illustrator Paul Iribe’s comet necklace from the 1930s. The variation in Olson and Pasachoff’s examples shows with all clarity that art is more than just “oil on canvas” and that science and the representations of science are present in other types of genres and media. By including these examples, the authors manage to do what they set out to do in their introduction, namely to create excitement and spark curiosity for and about science (7). However, as a reader one has the feeling that maybe the examples from the material culture give new insights into the relationship between art and science.

When you come across works on the relationship between art and science, the basic question tends to be how science inspired art, and in turn, if and how art inspired science. As the authors also point out, there are a number of examples of artists being inspired and very knowledgeable about science, and of scientists being trained in drawing, etc. Most famously is perhaps how Galileo Galilei may have drawn inspiration from contemporary artists when he depicted the “cavities” of the moon. In Olson and Pasachoff’s book, the premise is to show that the relationship between art and science goes both ways and that there is a movement between science and artists’ representations and interpretations of astronomical events and phenomena that help refine and change how scientists interpret the different phenomena. Thus we see, for instance, how different artists’ depictions of comets from the Middle Ages, and well into the 1800s, drew inspiration from scientific discussions of what comets were and looked like. For example, comets were depicted as a kind of spear, a rock with a tail, or, perhaps the best known imagery, of a star with a tail. But not only did the images of comets follow the scientific discussions, the artists used the imagery as symbolic interpretations that went beyond science. For example, Edward Poynter’s eerie “The Ides of March” from 1883 shows a comet, depicted as a rock with tail, at night which lights up the background to the Forum where it casts a long shadow on a bust of Caesar, symbolising his imminent death.

Whereas the inspiration art draws on directly from science is fairly clear until the 1800s, the invention of photography paved the way for scientific imagery that did not need a naturalistic representation by an artist. This meant that artists’ uses of astronomical imagery increasingly became purely symbolic, like George Grosz’ “Eclipse of the Sun” (1926), and Nicholas Roerich’s “Prince Igor’s Campaign” (1942), also depicting an eclipse, showing corruption, war, and death. Even though artists have moved away from realistic depictions of astronomy, scientific imagery has also moved from showing the very “naturalistic” images to being more art-like, with very colourful and aesthetic images of space that we are used to seeing today from, for instance, NASA. In the last chapter of the book Olson and Pasachoff 

focus on the development of astronomical photography and especially photographs of space. This chapter shows, among other images, images taken from the Rosetta spacecraft of the comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko, and of the Mars Rover on the surface of Mars. And although the authors reflect on how the images were taken, in fact, in great technical detail, as well as comment on the aesthetic features, it would have been interesting to hear more about their views on these new types of aesthetic representations and the status of the relationship between art and science now and in the future. Why are these images so important as aesthetic creations? And are their symbolic features reminiscent of those seen throughout the history of astronomy? Or are we entering a whole new era of the relationship between astronomy and imagery?

All in all this book is the result of a true and solid collaboration: The reader gets a balanced insight into history of science, astronomy, art history, and cultural history illustrated every step of the way. And as such they deliver on their promise from their introduction that the book, alluding to Alexander von Humboldt’s seminal 1859-work Kosmos, sets out to show how the sciences are interconnected and can offer many perspectives on the great links between art and science. But it also shows how deeply intertwined astronomy and art have been throughout history, and still continue to be so, moving forward.