Visions of the Universe is the summer exhibition here at Royal Museums Greenwich, filling the Special Exhibitions Gallery at the National Maritime Museum with stunning and beautiful images of stars, planets and galaxies. The exhibition tells the story of how telescopes and cameras have revolutionised our view of the Universe and our own place within it. We asked Will Gater, astronomer, author and Features Editor for Sky At Night Magazine, to highlight some of his favourite pictures and to comment on the impact that photography has had on astronomy, from its inception in the 19th Century right down to the sophisticated observatories of the 21st.
How do you think modern day technology has changed astrophotography for both scientists and amateurs?
Astronomy has always been a fast changing subject, taking advantage of new technologies as they’re developed. But what fascinates me is the pace at which amateur astrophotography and the research work done by some professionals is starting to converge. For decades small handfuls of experienced amateurs have been doing things like supernovae and asteroid hunting, with great success. Yet now we’re seeing space agencies actively engaging with amateurs to collect data and run monitoring programs. Modern amateur telescopes and cameras are allowing people to support planetary missions like Cassini, study asteroids (in the case of the OSIRIS-REx mission) as well as do things like meteor detection.
The exhibition features a few images from the NMM collection, can you tell us what you thought of them?
I found the beautiful drawing of a sunspot, made in 1873, by Samuel Pierpoint Langley particular interesting. I wonder what he would think of the superb solar images produced by amateur astronomers nowadays.
How does contemporary astrophotography influence modern day exploration and navigation?
I don’t think we should ever underestimate, or belittle, the tremendous inspirational value of images like those in the exhibition. You only have to see how the latest pictures from Hubble or the Mars rovers are shared on social media to see how much of an effect they have. Space pictures seem to resonate very deeply with people; just think how iconic the ‘Pale Blue Dot’, the ‘Pillars of Creation’ and the ‘Blue Marble’ have become. Even if they just get people asking questions, or trying to find out more about science, these images will, and do, have a significant influence on society. And who knows, maybe they’ll also inspire a future generation of astronauts, scientists and explorers.
Any tips for our visitors who have been inspired by the images in the exhibition?
Well, what I always say is that you don’t need a lot of fancy equipment to get into astrophotography. You can take stunning images with just a DSLR camera and a photographic tripod; bright constellations over picturesque landscapes, the aurora, noctilucent clouds, meteors and the Milky Way starfields all make great targets for this sort of setup. Even modern smartphones and compact digital cameras can take great pictures of the Moon and bright planets when pointed through a telescope’s eyepiece. We have an astrophotography tutorial in Sky at Night Magazine every month if you want to take things further.
Finally, what are your favourite images in the exhibition?
The ‘Window on Mars’ panoramas are truly spectacular and give you a real sense of standing on Mars, peering out over the barren landscape. But I’m also a huge fan of the galaxy images in the deep space section. I could stare at them for hours.
This month is the telescope’s 400th birthday. Well, sort of. We know that in September 1608 an optician called Hans Lipperhey announced that he had invented a new device and asked for a patent from the Dutch States-General. Before then it all gets a bit murkier. It’s more than likely that someone (or some people) came up with a similar idea in the decades before, but Lipperhey was certainly one of the first to try and exploit the instrument’s potential.
Portable telescope, dated 1661
The National Maritime Museum has a great collection of telescopes of all sorts (including this rather unusual trumpet-shaped one), so to mark the anniversary we’ve been putting together a display in the Royal Observatory, opening on 15 September, and a web exhibition. We’re really trying to get over two points. Firstly, the invention was important because it was the first time someone had produced an instrument to extend one of the human senses. Thanks to the work of people like Galileo Galilei (who, incidentally, did not invent the telescope) it changed how people did science. Secondly, most of the telescopes ever made were actually for more mundane things than astronomy – for soldiers, sailors and pleasure-seekers, and not just astronomers. But don’t worry, we’re not forgetting that astronomical telescopes changed the way we think about the universe.
So come and have a look at the new display at the Royal Observatory – or the web version – and let us know what you think.
Beginning from top left, clockwise: the old Flamsteed House, in front of it the Astrographic (round) dome, and the drum dome of Airy’s altazimuth; the onion-shape dome containing the 28-inch refractor; the wooden Magnetic Observatory and a library to the right; partial view of the Lassel dome.
Science, and most especially astronomy, is made not only inside buildings but also through buildings. This is why I found a suggested research topic on the buildings of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich (ROG) particularly appealing for a six-week research internship which I have undertaken at the ROG this summer.
This picture from the NMM collections, taken about 1895, strikes the eye with a rather clumsy arrangement of buildings, domes and sheds. In fact the ROG expanded within the limiting space of the hill where it stands by successive modifications and added facilities and structures. It was established in 1675 specifically to assist the enhancement of navigation by improving the knowledge of the heavens. But later it had to accommodate an increasing staff and to provide adequate space for additional functions like chronometer regulation, time signals, and meteorological and magnetic observations. In addition, it always had to respond to the growing demands of astronomical observation and measurement and to the related advancements in instrumentation.
By the mid-19th century, the most advanced astronomical observatories were planned and built as scientific houses embodying coherent and functional assemblages of instrumentation and architectural elements. The ROG was never a scientific house conceived as a whole in that sense; it was rather a house of science consisting of an evolving complex of buildings and temporary structures, in “a process as natural and simple as that of the growth of a tree”, as the American astronomer Simon Newcomb (1835-1909) put it. It was perhaps not that simple, but it surely reinforces the importance of the ROG buildings, both those extant and those which remain in the historical records only. They represent scientific challenges and solutions that shaped the performance of the British national observatory and mirror general trends spanning over three centuries of the history of astronomy and its institutions.
Celestial table globe (GLB0095)
On the Upper Deck there is one object that never ceases to catch my eye. Look for item no. 50 – a celestial globe (GLB0095) displayed a little higher than the other objects in one of the long showcases.
Made of copper, the surface of the globe has stars punched through its surface. If you look closely, the sphere is engraved with figures from the zodiac. It consists of two hemispheres connected through the first points of Gemini and Sagittarius, while the equator and ecliptic are graduated. The cartography is Latin. The tropics are labelled but not drawn. This sphere was intended to sit on a table. A candle was placed inside, which projected light out from the centre of the globe, creating a miniature planetarium that charted the skies above. Although far humbler than our planetarium here in Greenwich, the effect would still be capable of taking your breath away. However, since becoming an object in a museum, the globe operates in the very opposite way. The stars no longer project outwards – instead the light shines inwards through the star perforations, drawing our attention into the object.
One of the many fascinating things about mapping the stars is the ways that human beings have attempted to make sense of what goes beyond the limits of our understanding. Celestial spheres encapsulate belief systems. In this example, predicated on the systems of the universe described by Ptolemy, mythical beasts create a network for stars. This sphere is not an original; it is an early copy made after Caspar Vopel (1511-1561) and is thought to have been made some time after 1546. Vopel was a German mathematics teacher, scholar and master craftsman, making his objects ideal for the amateur to copy. Although the names and styles of the depicted constellations are identical to the original, this is a rougher version with some misspellings and incorrect labelling.
I am endlessly intrigued by the way that this object puts the notion of accuracy second place to craft. These failings draw attention to the ways that, as our knowledge of the universe increases, notions of ‘truth’ can become superseded by new understandings of the world – a process that privileges matters of concern over matters of fact. This study of material cultures is the very way in which the collections of the National Maritime Museum challenge and ask questions of the assumptions that we use to understand our place in the world.