Feeling the Universe, by Neil DeGrasse Tyson at The Great Debate 2013: The Storytelling of Science

“It was the seventeen hundreds and William Herschel, the most famous astronomer of his day-who had the biggest telescope around, making discoveries that only the biggest of its kind would give you; because in astrophysics and in particle physics bigger is actually better–[he] is very well known, he is wealthy, he is funded by the King of England, King George (by the way that is the King George of American Revolution Fame; the one where John Hancock wrote large so that even King George will be able to see the signature); Herschel, kind of by accident, discovers a planet beyond Saturn; the first human being ever to make such a discovery. All planets closer to the sun (than what Herschel discovered) are quite visible to the unaided eye at night, so no one person is credited with any of their discoveries; cave men saw these planets.

So he wanted to name it after his funder-which is what any good scientist would do if you want to keep the money flowing–so for a brief period there, about five years or seven years or so, the solar system was Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and George… I have books from that slice of time that enumerates the planets and there’s George, right there… So clearer heads would ultimately prevail and the planet would be named for Roman Gods as the other planets had been named, and thus was born, Uranus. However you didn’t want to piss off the British (because they were really powerful at the time) so to recompense, the moons of the planet Uranus, rather than named for Greek characters in the life of the Greek counterpart of the Roman god after whom the planet is named (so for example Jupiter has Ganymede, one of its moons. Ganymede was the man-servant of Zeus; Zeus is the corresponding god to Jupiter. In that way the Greek and Roman heritage of this activity is honored.). So Uranus is the lone exception in the solar system to this, and all of its planets are named after Shakespearian fictional characters, [] to keep the British calm.

Now, I say all of this and that’s not even the story I am going to tell you; I am going to talk about his son, John Herschel. John Herschel also an astronomer (not quite as well-known as William but in my field we all know who and what he is, and what he accomplished) one of the things he did in the early 1800s was essentially invent color photography. He made major contributions to putting an image of reality onto something that captured that reality for others to share. Arguably one of the most important inventions for the recording of scientific data there ever was. That was in 1839; he called it cyanotype. Time would move on… we would not perfect color photography for a century after that really but photography was born in the mid-1800s. The first war to be captured by photography was the American Civil War (the 1860s). Film was not very sensitive to light so you had to sit for long periods of time; that’s why there were no action photos from the middle of the 1800 hundreds. And in fact, if you were posed for the photo and you just like, scratched your nose, you were a blur in the image.

Now I am talking you down this road because in that era, for the first time, a portrait of you did not require an artist. You would hire an artist (if you were wealthy) to paint your picture; and you would want it to be accurate (or make you possibly look a little better). Over that period from 1840s through the 1860s, all of the sudden art did not have to capture reality. It was no longer the obligation of the artist because we had photographs to do that. And in that period, impressionism was born; where the artist said, ‘I’m not going to paint what I see, I’m going to paint what this image feels like to me.’

1888, we’re still in this period. Van Gogh, in the early morning hours… Van Gogh paints […] this:


It’s called, ‘The Starry Night,’ and I bring up this painting for several reasons. First, we know it was painted in the pre-dawn hours because that is the only way the moon can be angled that war towards the horizon in the northern-hemisphere; that makes this pre-dawn. We’re pretty sure the brightest of these stars is Venus. [] The planets are typically what come out first in the evening (which is why most of your wishes have not come true, you’ve been wishing on planets […] that’s just how that works.); planets can also be in the early morning sky as was this painting.

By my read of paintings ever drawn, when I look at this… there’s a foreground. There’s a cypress tree, there’s a village, there’s a church steeple; but he didn’t call the painting ‘Sleepy Village,’ ‘Cypress Tree,’ ‘Church Steeple.’ ‘Hills…’ It is the first painting that I know of-I don’t claim perfect knowledge but I looked hard-where the background is the subject of the painting. And that background is the night sky; and it has elevated the cosmos to become fair game to the artist. And I submit to you that science, scientific discovery, especially cosmic discovery, does not become main-stream until the artists embrace the fruits of those discoveries. So I applaud Vincent van Gogh for thinking that the sky is what mattered more than anything else in the foreground for this painting. […]

Over that time from the 1880s into the 1900s many discoveries were being published; newspapers came of age in a big way so that the dissemination of cosmic discovery was shared by all. And I submit that opened up a new era of the public awareness of cosmic discovery. The popularity of Einstein in 1905 right up through 1916 that continued to rise because media took charge. And so I see that as sort of a watershed period that is continuing to this day with things such as the World Science Festival, the fact that there are radio programs that value this that people listen to and care about. One last point, I had criticized the sky over the sinking ship of the Titanic to Jim Cameron; I was nipping at his heels for ten years on this and he finally actually fixed the night sky (and called me a son of a bitch; but in a loving way, it was a loving ‘son of a bitch’). I was asked given how nit-picky I was about the wrong sky over Kate Winslet as she floated on that plank, they said, ‘What do I think about the Van Gogh sky? Clearly that’s not accurate.’ My reply was, in the case of the artist, I don’t want them to represent reality because I have that via my own telescopes. I want and I need the artist to take me to new places; and the new place Van Gogh took me is not the sky as it is, but the sky as he felt it. And the more of us that feel the universe, the better off we will be in this world. Thank you.”

ndgt tgd

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