Featured Fellow: Michael Benson

In his new book, Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space through Time, NYIH fellow Michael Benson tells the thrilling story of the discovery and description of the universe in a new and exciting way. In celebration of this new work, the Institute asked him a few questions regarding his research process, the cosmos, art, and humanity.


How will/is the continuing advancement of technology that helps depict the cosmos further help our understanding of the universe?

I would argue that nowhere is the link between scientific-technological advancement and our understanding of a given subject more obviously evident then in planetary science, astronomy, and physics. Witness the explosive growth in our exoplanet count produced by NASA's Kepler Space Telescope. Launched in 2009 and designed specifically to hunt for Earth-sized planets orbiting other stars, Kepler by January of this year had located over a thousand planets orbiting around 440 stars or stellar systems. A further 3,199 has been tentatively identified but is as yet unconfirmed. Now this is astonishing enough, but consider that based on this data, astronomers have stated that there could be as many as 40 billion Earth-sized planets orbiting in the so-called habitable zones of stars within the Milky Way.

That's four, zero. Billion. It boggles the mind!

Unfortunately, as the old saw has it, no bucks, no Buck Rogers. We're currently witnessing the slow-motion collapse of one of the most spectacularly cost-effective and productive government-funded scientific efforts in history, and that's this nation's robotic space exploration. NASA's Science Mission Directorate, which produced Kepler and all the interplanetary missions, from Voyager to Cassini and the Mars rovers, is being chronically underfunded, despite its absolutely revelatory, historic successes over the last six decades. Because all the current missions were decades in the planning and launched years ago, the current spate of active missions, while gratifying, disguise a bleak future. Because so little is on the drawing board. I find this incredibly disturbing. (For an excellent but disquieting story on this, read David Brown's recent piece in Vox. And weep.)
 

1573: Now materialized in patriarchal glory, the omnipotent creator retains a triangular form. Belted by stars, he conjures the firmament into existence. Below, the claylike vessel seen emerging in the first painting already forms the crystalline spheres of a Ptolemaic universe, with the Earth at their center. Credit: Biblioteca Nacional de España.

1573: Now materialized in patriarchal glory, the omnipotent creator retains a triangular form. Belted by stars, he conjures the firmament into existence. Below, the claylike vessel seen emerging in the first painting already forms the crystalline spheres of a Ptolemaic universe, with the Earth at their center. Credit: Biblioteca Nacional de España.


Cosmigraphics is not only a history of cosmology and astronomy; it is also a history of artistic expression and discovery. Where did you choose to begin when looking to see how art and the science of cosmology become interconnected?

Well I've always been fascinated by the ways that the congenitally intertwined strands of science and art gradually got teased apart, three or four centuries ago, only to come back together in multiple ways over the last few decades, with the increasing reliance of art on technology, among other things. And we could add religion into the mix, as our cosmological understandings were inevitably colored by Old Testament prisms, at least in the Western world. One of the places where the relationship between cosmology, astronomy, religion and art inevitably came to a head was in depictions of the Creation. As our understanding grew more nuanced, so too did depictions of Genesis. Among other discoveries I made as I searched through various archives was the work of the Portuguese philosopher and artist Francesco de Holanda, whose extraordinary 16th Century depictions of Creation seem to anticipate a 20thCentury avant-garde abstract visual vocabulary that would have looked at home in the work of Kandinsky, fusing it to mystical representations of the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic cosmological design. There's also seemingly a foreshadowing of William Blake's mystical romanticism in some pages of de Holanda's Creation series, 300 years before Blake. It's pretty miraculous!

And then there's British physician and cosmologist Robert Fludd, who in 1617 published an epic book titled (in the English translation of the original Latin), "The Metaphysical, Physical, and Technical History of Two Worlds, the Macrocosm and the Microcosm." In attempting to depict the void prior to creation, Fludd settled on an interesting solution: a black square on a white ground, as a full page illustration. This is three centuries before Malevich's paradigmatic Black Square on White Ground! Clearly, something about the challenge of attempting to depict the circumstances surrounding the creation of the universe pulled ideas out of the air that were centuries before their time, like apparitions conjured from the future of art history. And it was very exceptionally gratifying to uncover all this as I worked on the book, I must say.
 

1210-30: In this illumination from a late work by the prolific medieval visionary writer, composer, and proto-feminist Hildegard von Bingen, the four seasons of a spherical Earth are represented. Although produced after her death in 1179, the illustration is thought to follow her original design. Knowledge of the spherical Earth dates back to the Greek philosophers of about the sixth century b.c., with Pythagoras said to have been among the first to describe it. By the eighth century a.d. and the early medieval period, the shape of the planet was well established. Credit: State Library of Lucca.

1210-30: In this illumination from a late work by the prolific medieval visionary writer, composer, and proto-feminist Hildegard von Bingen, the four seasons of a spherical Earth are represented. Although produced after her death in 1179, the illustration is thought to follow her original design. Knowledge of the spherical Earth dates back to the Greek philosophers of about the sixth century b.c., with Pythagoras said to have been among the first to describe it. By the eighth century a.d. and the early medieval period, the shape of the planet was well established. Credit: State Library of Lucca.

 

A lot of your book shows that artists have made an outstanding contribution to our understanding of the universe. What role, if any, do you believe artists play today in the study of the universe?

If the operative word is "study," very little. Scientific research is generally conducted with zero reference to the arts. If science is back in art, and in a big way, the reverse is only true if one expands one's definition of art and treats certain data-driven simulations, for example, as found objects presentable as art. Something that I suppose I can be accused of with Cosmigraphics. But art as a pursuit in its own right isn't back in science, or certainly not in a meaningful way.
Having said that, supercomputer visualizations of the dynamics of galaxy groups, to take only one example, can be utterly spectacular visually, and certainly belong to the history of graphic representation. And for example Kepler Space Telescope astronomer Daniel ​Fabrycky's "Kepler Orrery," which you can see here, is a kind of marvel of kinetic art. In presenting the confirmed multi-planet systems discovered by the telescope, it's a fusion of Duchamp's roto-reliefs and hard scientific data. So maybe I'm undermining my own case here!
Though, interestingly, when I e-mailed with Daniel last year and complimented him on his orrery, and asked him what would be his second act, he in effect distanced himself from his own work, indicating he had to get on with his more scientific pursuits. So I think I caught a whiff of the stigma that the scientific community can sometimes attach to those engaged in what they somewhat dismissively term "outreach." Those successful at presenting the results of our Big Science efforts can end up taken less seriously in the scientific community, even if they're no less successful at pure research, as for example Carl Sagan was.

1210–30: In this illumination from a late work by the prolific medieval visionary writer, composer, and proto-feminist Hildegard von Bingen, the four seasons of a spherical Earth are represented. Although produced after her death in 1179, the illustration is thought to follow her original design. Knowledge of the spherical Earth dates back to the Greek philosophers of about the sixth century b.c., with Pythagoras said to have been among the first to describe it. By the eighth century a.d. and the early medieval period, the shape of the planet was well established. This is one of the most dramatic early representations of a spherical Earth, from Saint Hildegard’s last masterpiece, Liber divinorum operum (Book of Divine Works). Credit: State Library of Lucca.

1210–30: In this illumination from a late work by the prolific medieval visionary writer, composer, and proto-feminist Hildegard von Bingen, the four seasons of a spherical Earth are represented. Although produced after her death in 1179, the illustration is thought to follow her original design. Knowledge of the spherical Earth dates back to the Greek philosophers of about the sixth century b.c., with Pythagoras said to have been among the first to describe it. By the eighth century a.d. and the early medieval period, the shape of the planet was well established. This is one of the most dramatic early representations of a spherical Earth, from Saint Hildegard’s last masterpiece, Liber divinorum operum (Book of Divine Works).
Credit: State Library of Lucca.

 

A theme in your book is the existence of a perpetual discussion about the design of the universe, and how humankind along with our planet, fit into that design. As our knowledge of the universe expands, do you think there is a diminishing humanistic pursuit in humankind's place in the universe?  Or, does our excitement and curiosity about the cosmos, and our place in it only grow with our knowledge of it? 

Well in many ways it's our knowledge of our ignorance that has grown. I mean, in the last decade it has become clear that 96 percent of the universe is missing-or at least, is entirely unsusceptible to observation. As science writer Richard Panek explored in great detail in ​his book The 4 Percent Universe, only that tiny percentage of the universe seems present and accounted for, and made of readily identifiable stuff. The rest is comprised of what we're currently calling dark matter and dark energy. Such terms mostly just paper over our total ignorance of what they really are.
I mean, it's amazing. After centuries of hard-won knowledge about the cosmos, culminating in the extraordinary last six decades of planetary exploration and astronomy, we now know that what we can see, in all the various wavelengths of electro-magnetic radiation all those stars and galaxies and galaxy groups is only something like the froth on top of a very deep, unknown ocean.

So we're still at the very beginning, the earliest days. We're standing on the shore.

As to humanistic engagement, I have met very few humanists who don't take an interest in such questions. And certainly it would only be the most illusory kind of historical foreshortening that might give us the mistaken sense that we're at the end of a process of understanding, rather than the first chapters. So I'm hoping that our curiosity and excitement, as you put it, will remain and grow, not diminish, and be sufficient to enforce a continuing commitment to research. Unfortunately, when one looks at the games being played in Washington, it seems more like we're willfully determined to squander our inheritance. We seem gripped by a self-destructive impulse to reward success with incrementally less oxygen.

Which brings to mind a story from half a century ago. Do you know about physicist Robert Wilson's testimony on behalf of building the first accelerator at Fermilab, in 1969? Wilson was being peppered by skeptical questions from Senator John Pastore, who kept asking if the particle accelerator was merely for pure research, or could it help with national security. And Wilson kept denying it had anything to do with the military. He even apologized that he couldn't make the case that it did! To which the Senator graciously said he shouldn't be sorry about it.

But Pastore wouldn't let it go, finally asking "Is there anything here that projects us in a position of being competitive with the Russians, with regard to this race?"

And Wilson's response was astounding: "It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things that we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about. In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending."