Painting an Eclipse

Celestial Brushwork[1]

A 1925 painting by Howard Russell Butler in “Transient Effects: The Solar Eclipses and Celestial Landscapes of Howard Russell Butler,” at the Princeton University Art Museum. Credit Princeton University Art Museum



A third of the way through “Macbeth,” right after the antihero murders the king of Scotland, two noblemen look up into the sky and behold a celestial horror. “By the clock, ’tis day,” says the Thane of Ross, “And yet dark night strangles the traveling lamp.” The Sun has been blotted out over the Highlands, and Ross has a sense of why; the political has become astronomical, and crimes on Earth are reflected above.

On Monday, August 21, 2017, the Sun goes out over America, as a total solar eclipse passes over the width of the continental United States for the first time since 1918. It may be tempting, for some, to take a Macbethian reading of the country plunged into waking darkness for the first time since World War I—but now we know better (don’t we?) than to blame governments for the transit of heavenly bodies. A solar eclipse occurs whenever the Moon passes between Earth and the Sun; they are so predictable that NASA offers a search engine of future eclipses out to the year 3000.



A 1923 painting of a solar eclipse by Butler. Credit Princeton University Art Museum



When that 1918 eclipse passed over the United States, a team of astronomers invited the artist Howard Russell Butler to join them at an observatory in Oregon, and to document what will appear in untold millions of blurry Instagrams on Eclipse Day afternoon. It was the first of four eclipses that he saw, and his paintings of lunar transits and other celestial phenomena are on view in “Transient Effects: The Solar Eclipses and Celestial Landscapes of Howard Russell Butler,” a small, lovely show at the Princeton University Art Museum. His soft-colored, scrupulously accurate paintings of the occluded Sun were among the first artistic depictions of individual eclipses, and they document just what an observer in a given spot would have seen. They offer a jolly curtain raiser for Monday’s eclipse, and also continue a recent vogue for exhibitions that marry art and science.













Butler’s “Northern Lights, Ogunquit, Maine.” Credit Princeton University Art Museum


Butler (1856-1934) was a prosperous alumnus of Princeton’s science school, but in his 20s he turned to painting and arts advocacy. (He was president of Carnegie Hall for nearly a decade.) At first he concentrated on portraiture and landscape, but his scientific training came in handy when he beheld an aurora borealis off the coast of Maine. Rather than attempt to paint the streaks of green, turquoise and violet while outside, he quickly sketched the shapes and contours of the aurora and then made exacting notes on its shades. A century before Photoshop taught us to designate colors via numerical values of hue, saturation and luminosity, Butler employed formulas to designate what colors went where, and used both his notes and his sense memories to paint the cosmos.








A document detailing some of Butler’s notes from the 1918 total eclipse of the Sun. Credit Princeton University Art Museum


That piece-by-piece approach was essential for Butler when he joined the eclipse exhibition of 1918. Like most of the Americans who will see the totality of Monday’s eclipse, Butler had never seen the Sun obscured before, and he had only two minutes to watch the Moon block all of its light except for the blazing corona. While a Navy officer stood by with a stopwatch, Butler worked in 10- or 20-second blocks as he drew the outline of the corona, assessed the colors of the sky and Moon, and sketched the contours of the gaseous prominences that bloomed from the eclipse’s edge. Only then did he begin to paint.

In Butler’s painting of the 1918 eclipse, a corona of burnished orange encases the void of the blacked-out Sun, while the sky is mottled by gray-black clouds that recall the light effects of Frederic Edwin Church, Albert Bierstadt and other American landscape artists. It hangs here as part of a triptych of eclipse “portraits.” His painting of the solar eclipse of 1923, which Butler observed from California, includes a flash of yellow on the border of the black Sun: one of the so-called Baily’s beads, a phenomenon just before the totality when the disappearing Sun condenses into a single excrescence of blinding light. Two years later, in Connecticut, he saw another eclipse, this one resulting in especially long shafts of white that cut through the cloud cover. Those are the ectoplasmic wisps of the corona that scientists obsess over, and that more art-inclined observers may see as recalling the glowing halos of Renaissance painting.



Butler’s “Mars as Seen from Phobos.” Credit Princeton University Art Museum


In an age before photography could fully capture solar eclipses, Butler’s paintings were hailed as not just a personal impression but as a vital scholastic tool. In the mid-1920s he began to consult for the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and he designed a large astronomical wing whose construction was scuppered by the Depression. During this time Butler painted a number of otherworldly celestial scenes: our blue marble of a planet seen from the craggy lunar surface, or a vermilion Mars as viewed from its own two Moons. Here observation gives way to imagination—the surface of Deimos, the outer Martian satellite, appears as parched clay—but these too relied on models and calculations of atmosphere, shadow and light refraction.

He did allow himself one indulgence, though. At the bottom of “Mars as Seen From Phobos,” in the shadow of the red planet, is the outline of a human head. Presumably it’s the artist’s own, painting en plein air where there’s no air to speak of.

If you can’t make it to Princeton, check out the robust website devoted to “Transient Effects,” which features not only Butler’s beguiling paintings but also centuries of art, not on view at the museum, engaged with eclipses and the relationship between heaven and Earth. Long before Shakespeare set his eclipse upon Scotland, the Gospel of Luke described the lights going out after the death of Christ, and eclipses frequently appear in Crucifixion scenes by painters such as Matthias Grünewald (who may have seen an eclipse in 1502). Japanese printmakers used eclipses to heighten the spookiness of ghost scenes, while modern artists from Joseph Cornell to Roy Lichtenstein and Alma Thomas painted eclipses with both an awe for science and a freedom reserved for artists. They were, perhaps unwittingly, following in the tradition of Howard Russell Butler, for whom painting had a vocation as fundamental as the Sun.

[1] Jason Farago, “How Do You Paint an Eclipse? Work Fast in the Dark,” New York Times (Aug. 17, 2017). A version of this review appears in print on August 18, 2017, on Page C13 of the New York edition with the headline: “Celestial Brushwork”


Starmus Festival IV

Starmus Festival IV: Life And The Universe

The Starmus International Festival was held this year, June 18–23, 2017, in Trondheim, Norway. Starmus is an international gathering focused on celebrating astronomy, space exploration, music, art, and allied sciences such as biology and chemistry. It was founded by Garik Israelian, an astronomer at the Institute for Astrophysics in Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain. The Festival has featured Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, Alexei Leonov, Jim Lovell, Brian May (English musiciaN), Jill Tarter, Kip Thorne, and Rick Wakeman among others. This year Brian Eno gave the keynote speach opening the Festival.


In 2007 Brian May, founding guitarist of the rock band Queen, completed his PhD dissertation, which was left unfinished in 1974 when Queen began to achieve significant success. May’s work focused on zodiacal dust in the Solar System. He had studied at Tenerife earlier through Imperial College in London, and resumed work there more than 30 years later. In 2007, his new advisor was Garik Israelian, and the two struck up a friendship, Israelian also being a musician. This led to the founding of the Starmus Festival—the name paying homage to stars and music—and the stage was set for the first Festival, which would occur four years later.


The festival has occurred in 2011, 2014 and 2016 in Tenerife, Spain. The fourth Starmus festival was held in Trondheim, Norway from June 18 to 23, 2017, under the title “Life And The Universe”.

The festival is described as an event where “the greatest minds in space exploration, astronomy, cosmology, and planetary science get together for a week of incredible talks, sharing of information, and appreciation of the knowledge we have of space and the universe.” This year there were enough brains and Brians to fill the multiverse

Brians Cox, Eno and May joined Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins in Tenerife to celebrate the synergy between astronomy and music, while astronaut Chris Hadfield, interviewed below, talked of our innate instinct to explore

In Starmus IV, gathered around the giant pool of the Mediterranean Palace hotel in Tenerife, hundreds of people focused on a familiar star. As pounding bass-filled music booms out of the PA, a great mass of the young, the middle-aged and the old are all glazed with submission as they appear to seek the meaning of the universe in the transformative process of ultraviolet radiation.

A few yards away in a darkened auditorium beneath a strange mock pinkish pyramid the Starmus festival was under way. Dedicated to celebrating a synthesis between astronomy and music that is of a more transcendent kind than that practiced around the Mediterranean Palace pool, it has drawn hundreds of people focused on very different but no less familiar stars: Brian Cox, Richard Dawkins, Brian May and, the greatest scientific supernova of them all, Stephen Hawking.

These, along with 11 Nobel laureates, were some of the leading speakers at the third Starmus festival at the Pirámide de Arona, an island of vaulting intellectual aspiration surrounded by tourist hotels with armies of sunbathers fastened to their poolside loungers as if by superglue.

Starmus is an unusual affair, but not necessarily for its setting. It’s not a typical science conference for academics at which new papers are presented. Nor is it a typical public talk designed to popularize established academic theories. Instead it’s a sort of hybrid—at once specialist and popularizing, openly public, and yet sufficiently off-circuit to feel discreetly private. It also seeks to bridge the separate worlds of science and the arts or, more specifically, music and cosmology.

The original idea was to do a concert at La Palma observatory, which features the world’s largest optical and infrared telescope. A disarming 53-year-old with a scattershot charm, Israelian had been working at NASA “trying to get acoustic sound waves in stellar atmospheres” and wondered if musicians might be able to use his collection. He approached Jean-Michel Jarre, who was keen on the idea, only for the concert to be cancelled when the Canary Islands government withdrew funding.

Undeterred, Israelian decided to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first space flight with a festival in 2011. That was the first Starmus. In one sense it was a tremendous success because the keynote speaker was Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon and someone whose public appearances were so rare as to raise suspicion of their authenticity.

“When we announced Neil Armstrong was coming,” Israelian recalls, “we completely lost our credibility because no one believed he was going to be there. People said we were crazy. It was the worst thing we could do. And then he came!”

Armstrong’s fellow crew member Buzz Aldrin was also there, as well as Jim Lovell, commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13 who was played by Tom Hanks in the eponymous film. In addition there was the progressive electronic band Tangerine Dream.

However, in financial terms it was a disaster. Admission was free for most visitors, there was no sponsorship, and Israelian and his co-producers were left to pick up a hefty bill. But that didn’t stop them holding a second Starmus, again on Tenerife. This time Stephen Hawking came. He was a massive draw, but once again the festival lost money. Israelian talks darkly of broken promises by the Canary Islands government and the disappointing lack of sponsorship.

They say that one definition of madness is to keep doing the same thing and to expect different results. If so, then Israelian is mad in the best tradition of mad professors, because he came back for a third time with a cast list that was starrier than ever.

Not until you’ve seen Brian Cox at a gathering of science buffs can you appreciate how much the awe-filled physicist and TV personality is adored by his public. To walk alongside him though the Pirámide de Arona is to be submerged by a sea of autograph hunters and selfie-takers. Unlike Dawkins, who looks as if he can’t wait to get to the green room, Cox seems to relish the attention. What did he think of his first Starmus?

“It’s brilliant,” he says, tucking into an ice-cream. “There’s a lot of time to talk to the speakers. And you don’t normally get people like Brian Eno, Brian May and Hans Zimmer in the same room as Stephen Hawking and Joe Stiglitz.”

Starmus IV featured a lecture by Brian Eno. Eno’s discussed the intimate relationship between science and art, one the legendary music producer and former Roxy Music synthesizer player characterized as “science discovers and art digests”.

“He’s right,” says Cox. “If you look at the history of astronomy, these ideas of finding our place in the universe have had a massive social impact. The obvious one is the relegation of the Earth from the centre of it. That battle to define whether or not we’re special was one of the defining battles of the 17th century onward. Our physical demotion is now widely accepted, but what of the emotional impact if you start talking as Brian Greene and Martin Rees [two other speakers] did about the multiverse. What does it mean if there are an infinite number of these pocket universes? If that’s the case, we’re not geographically significant. We’re not even lucky. We’re just inevitable. Does that matter?”

Good question, but I’m not sure that I’ve fully mastered the concept of an infinite number of pocket universes, so I silently nod with as much sagacity as I can muster.

“The fact that we’re in an insignificant physical speck in a possibly infinite universe,” he continues, “is as easy or difficult to accept as that we are a very tiny temporal speck in a possibly infinite time span. We know how to deal with that, with death and a finite life time. There is an interesting parallel to be drawn. But it’s a conversation that won’t be had by physicists. It’s a conversation that’s best had in art, philosophy, literature and theology. That’s where the meaning of the things we discover about the universe is teased out.”

Israelian was asked if the lack of diversity was an issue for him. “No, no. I don’t think about such things,” he said, irritated by the question. “I invited many female scientists and they couldn’t come. I’ve got limited time—I cannot keep inviting people to get 50%. That’s not my problem.”

The round table debate turned out to be quite dull, with everyone speaking in optimistic platitudes or pessimistic generalities. It’s not a forum for deep expertise but strong opinion and it turns out that in a group debate the sum is less than its parts.

The debate is streamed live on the internet and also into the auditorium beneath the pyramid in Tenerife, which is about half full. The crowd at Starmus is much younger on average than the speakers and, in terms of gender at least, much more representative of the outside world.

A 40-year-old physics student, Raquel Rodriguez, was interviewed. If you were looking for a stereotype of an astro-nerd, then Rodriguez is not where you’d start. She looks like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct and said her favorite area of discussion is “dark matter and quantum physics”.

Then there’s a 32-year-old Norwegian nurse called Guro Nygård. Her brother brought her for the week as a birthday present. She’s fascinated by astronomy, she says, though this is the first time she’s been to such an event. Her personal highlight from the week was seeing Hawking. “He’s unbelievable,” she says. “His personal history is truly amazing.”

Both women noticed the imbalance between men and women but both believed the key thing was to get the best people and that gender, in the short term, was a secondary issue.

Thirty-six-year-old Sam Alexandroni was talking to a neuroscientist, a brain surgeon and a rocket sci-entist. He used to be a journalist at the New Statesman, he said, but now he’s writing a novel. “My teachers did a miserable job at school of communicating the wonder of science. Having discovered it later in life, events like this are brilliant for communicating ideas,” he says. As for combining the sciences and the arts, Alexandroni is all for it, though he says he’s “yet to experience the synergy” at Starmus.

Starmus IV highlighted moonwalkers and women scientists.

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage Inspiration

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage Inspiration

Texas State’s “Celestial Sleuth” identifies Lord Byron’s stellar inspiration[1]

What do the moon, Jupiter and the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history have in common? Exactly 200 years ago they all combined to inspire renowned British Romantic poet Lord Byron in writing “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” the work that made the poet famous.

So impressed was Lord Byron that he devoted three stanzas to a spectacular evening twilight that he observed in Italy during August of 1817. “The Moon is up…” he wrote in the fourth canto, published in 1818, “…A Single Star is at her side.” The stanzas hold enough clues to link the scene to the real events that inspired it—including the massive 1815 eruption of Tambora in Indonesia.

Texas State University astronomer, physics professor and Texas State University System Regents’ Professor Donald Olson has applied his distinctive brand of celestial sleuthing to the question of identifying the object next to the moon. Olson determined that Lord Byron’s famed “Star” was actually the planet Jupiter. What’s more, by happy coincidence, the moon and Jupiter are aligning on several dates this summer so that modern viewers can view a twilight scene very much like the one Lord Byron observed exactly 200 years ago.

Olson publishes his findings in the August 2017 issue of Sky & Telescope magazine.

Byron and Hobhouse

Byron’s personal letters and manuscripts provided significant clues. The poet insisted in a note to his first edition of the poem that the fanciful description of the twilight sky was not a creation of his fertile imagination, but an actual event he had observed while riding in Italy with his close friend, John Cam Hobhouse:

“The above description may seem fantastical or exaggerated to those who have never seen an Oriental or an Italian sky – yet it is but a literal – and hardly sufficient delineation of an August evening (the eighteenth) as contemplated in one of many rides along the banks of the Brenta near La Mira.

Byron began writing the fourth canto of “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” shortly after moving to the Villa Foscarini on the Brenta Canal in La Mira on June 14, 1817. On July 31, Hobhouse joined him as a houseguest, and the two began daily rides along the canal. Byron’s manuscripts express doubt about the exact date of the memorable twilight, but Hobhouse’s diary is more definitive:

“Wednesday August 20th 1817: Ride with Byron.  Return over the other side of the river from Dolo … Riding home, remarked the moon reigning on the right of us and the Alps still blushing with the gaze of the sunset.  The Brenta came down upon us all purple – a delightful scene, which Byron has put in three stanzas of his “Childe Harold.”

Dian’s Crest

With the date confirmed by Hobhouse, Olson traced Byron’s ride along the Brenta Canal and used astronomical software to recreate the twilight sky as it would have appeared on August 20, 1817. Byron writes:

“While, on the other hand, meek Dian’s crest
Floats through the azure air – and island of the blest!”

Byron’s readers would have understood “Dian’s Crest” as a clear reference to Diana, the Roman goddess of the Moon, who was often depicted with a crescent as a diadem or crest over her forehead. Olson found that’s exactly what Byron would have seen—a waxing gibbous Moon, a day past first quarter, in the evening sky with the brilliant planet Jupiter unusually close by.

Using the same astronomical software, Olson also determined that on several dates during the summer of 2017 this celestial scene will repeat, allowing modern viewers to catch a glimpse, at least in part, of the sky that inspired Byron’s stanzas exactly 200 years ago.

Iris of the West

The stanzas offer one other intriguing clue. Lord Byron writes:

“Heaven is free
From clouds, but of all colours seems to be
Melted to one vast Iris of the West”

In Greek mythology, Iris was the goddess of the rainbow. Byron’s phrasing indicates unusually vivid colors in the cloudless, twilight sky. But what would cause the sky to stand out to capture Byron’s imagination in such a way?

The answer may lie in the 1815 eruption of Tambora, the most powerful volcanic eruption in recorded history. In the February 2004 issue of Sky & Telescope magazine, Olson connected the blood-red sky in Edvard Munch’s most famous painting, The Scream, with the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa. The spectacular “Krakatoa twilight” was the result of dust, gas and aerosols ejected into the upper atmosphere by the volcano, producing remarkable hues in twilight skies worldwide.

The April 1815 eruption of Tambora was far more powerful than Krakatoa. Observers the world over for the next three years noted brilliantly colored sunsets and twilights attributed to the eruption. It is likely that Byron observed a “Tambora Twilight” as the backdrop for his observation of the moon and Jupiter that August evening in 1817.

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto IV

Stanza XXVII.
The Moon is up, and yet it is not Night –
Sunset divides the sky with her – a Sea
Of Glory streams along the Alpine height
Of blue Friuli’s mountains; Heaven is free
From clouds, but of all colours seems to be
Melted to one vast Iris of the West,
Where the Day joins the past Eternity;
While, on the other hand, meek Dian’s crest
Floats through the azure air – an island of the blest!

Stanza XXVIII.
A Single Star is at her side, and reigns
With her o’er half the lovely heaven; but still
Yon sunny Sea heaves brightly, and remains
Rolled o’er the peak of the far Rhaetian hill,
As Day and Night contending were, until
Nature reclaimed her order – gently flows
The deep-dyed Brenta, where their hues instil
The odorous Purple of a new-born rose,
Which streams upon her stream, and glassed within it glows,

Stanza XXIX.
Filled with the face of Heaven, which, from afar,
Comes down upon the waters; all its hues,
From the rich sunset to the rising star,
Their magical variety diffuse:
And now they change; a paler Shadow strews
Its mantle o’er the mountains; parting Day
Dies like the Dolphin, whom each pang imbues
With a new colour as it gasps away –
The last still loveliest – till – ‘tis gone – and All is gray.

[1] Jayme Blaschke, “Texas State's 'Celestial Sleuth' identifies Lord Byron's stellar inspiration,” Texas State University (June 26, 2017)

Art and Science

Art and Science[1]

In 2001, a group of scholars packed into an auditorium at New York University to hear English artist David Hockney present his theory that since the Renaissance, many painters have used optics in their work. The photorealistic paintings of Dutch master Johannes Vermeer were among Hockney’s examples. To Hockney and his collaborator, optical scientist Charles Falco, Vermeer’s paintings bear the unmistakable signature of camera-like projection.

But many in the room had come not to praise Hockney for his insight, but to convict him of heresy. They were offended at the suggestion that the ineffable genius of revered artists might have benefited from anything so vulgar as lenses and mirrors. One museum curator insisted that Vermeer’s attitude had been, “To hell with physics!” Characteristically witty, writer and critic Susan Sontag likened the reliance of art on optics to the reliance of sex on Viagra.

The battle lines that day were drawn between what C. P. Snow called “The Two Cultures.” On one side are art and the humanities, expressions of the human spirit; on the other side is science, the haven of cold, dehumanizing rationality. “The Two Cultures” are stamped indelibly onto the zeitgeist of our times.

Personally, I don’t get it.

Listen to conversations among scientists, and you might be surprised to catch phrases like “playing with the data,” the “beauty of an experiment,” or the “elegance of a theory.” You might hear passion about intuition or the aesthetic that guides their work.

Trade lab coats for fedoras, equations for lead sheets, and scientific jargon for the esoteric language of jazz, and you might confuse the scene with a bunch of musicians taking five during a recording session! The distinction might blur further if the discussion turned to the technical side of making and recording musical sound.

In both cases, you would be witnessing the same thing: human creativity at work.

The notion of a gulf between science and art would have puzzled Leonardo da Vinci. He and others moved beyond received wisdom — and invented modern science — precisely by applying an artist’s creativity and careful eye to questions of how the world works.

All of which raises the question: If science and art are so similar — both human expressions of the creative drive to experience and comprehend the world — then why are they viewed so differently?

The answer lies in the jury process. Art finds its value in the subjective response of its audience. In contrast, many a beautiful scientific theory has been abandoned for the simple crime of making predictions that were incorrect.

Johannes Vermeer captured the light and details of The Music Lesson so perfectly that some wonder if he used optical aid. If he did, would that make him an art fraud or simply a different kind of genius?

Science can be uncomfortable because it says, “What you want doesn’t matter.” You might want astrology to work. You might want global warming to be a hoax. You can stomp your foot as much as you like and even get yourself elected to Congress. But that still doesn’t make it so. Some people have trouble accepting that.

Inventor and technologist Tim Jenison had a lot to do with bringing computer animation to the world—two Emmys’ worth. Turning revolutionary technology into revolutionary art is his life’s work. When Jenison heard about Hockney’s ideas, he was intrigued. But instead of opinion, Jenison saw Hockney’s work as a scientific theory to be tested. So he set out to do just that.

Jenison’s early experiments with a mirror on a stick grew into an obsession. After years mastering everything from polishing lenses to making his own paint, all using 17th-century techniques, it was time for his grand experiment. He would attempt to paint his own version of Vermeer’s masterpiece, The Music Lesson.

Day after day, month after month, Jenison devoted himself to the demanding and tedious work. One brush stroke at a time, he used his optical device to meticulously match pigments on canvas to light from the scene. When finished, Jenison’s painting was undeniably beautiful. It also perfectly captured the precise perspective and illumination that define Vermeer’s style.

Jenison’s remarkable story is chronicled in the delightful documentary film Tim’s Vermeer. Narrated by Penn Jillette and directed by his partner, Teller, Tim’s Vermeer has received widespread critical praise.

But many in the art history community are no happier with the idea now than they were in 2001. Jonathan Jones, writing for the Guardian, pulled no punches in his scathing critique. “At last,” wrote Jones, “an art film for philistines.”

Did Jenison prove that Vermeer invented and used a forerunner of modern copy cameras? No. But Jenison did successfully demonstrate an optical method that would have allowed Vermeer to produce the unique works of art that continue to marvel us to this day.

Immersed in the scientific and artistic excitement of the Dutch Golden Age, if Vermeer did invent such a powerful technique, why wouldn’t he have used it?

I enjoyed Tim’s Vermeer. At last, a film about science and art for those who insist they are two sides of the same coin.

[1] See Jeff Hester, “A False Dichotomoy,” Astronomy (43, 8, 2015, p. 14). Jeff Hester is a keynote speaker, coach, and astrophysicist. Follow his thoughts at