Many poetic descriptions of the universe have found their way into print over the millennia that humankind has been fascinated with outer space. The starry vault, the firmament, the void, heaven – all express something of the awe and mystery we naturally feel when confronted with infinity.
Perhaps the most apparently incongruous, yet simultaneously most appropriate description is to be found in the works of William Herschel, the 18th-century astronomer who discovered the planet Uranus. He called the universe a “luxuriant garden”.
He lived in Bath with his sister Caroline at a time when botanists were travelling the world to classify its myriad plants. Herschel saw a direct parallel to his own efforts to catalogue the celestial objects that he and his sister were discovering in the night sky. Each curiosity appeared as a sculpted twist of dim light in his telescope, as plentiful and as diverse as wildflowers in a meadow, hence his horticultural description.
As I flipped through the pages of the new Phaidon book Universe, I found myself experiencing a sense of Herschelian wonder at the sheer beauty of deep space. But what makes this book unique is that as well as the breathtaking images taken with telescopes and the drawings of historical astronomers, it also includes the creative representations that have sprung from the mind of artists.
The result is a weighty tome that contains more than 300 evocative pictures. It was once popular to call publications of this sort “coffee table books”, but Universe deserves more serious consideration than as a visual distraction while taking a caffeine hit.
“The pictures had to have art-historical interest, aesthetic value and/or curiosity value, and above all be provocative,” says Professor Paul Murdin, an astronomer from the University of Cambridge, who wrote the book’s introduction.
It is a refreshing perspective to bring to an astronomy book, and reflects perfectly the quiet rise of “one culture”…