Pleasing the Eye, Empowering the Mind: Visualization in Astronomy and Cosmology

Astronomy and cosmology deal with large scales of space and time, far-flung objects, and high-energy phenomena, all of which defy human imagination. This exhibit celebrates the ingenuity, taste, and skill of scientists, artists, and instrument makers who have helped all sorts of people visualize complex ideas about the Universe and our place in it. 

Page from Nuremberg Chronicle, Folium V ("De opere sexte diei")Adler Planetarium

The Whole Cosmos in View 

This 15th-century illustration captures the medieval conception of the cosmos in one single image. The planets, the Sun, the Moon, and the fixed stars are attached to crystalline spheres (shown in cross-section), which are nested into each other. Their combined movement around a central and static Earth produce the motions of the celestial bodies. Though this view was abandoned in the 17th century, similar diagrams continue to be used to this day to represent the orbits of the planets around the Sun. 

Corporu(m) (C)oelestium MagnitudinesAdler Planetarium

Matters of Scale 

This 17th-century illustration represents the sizes of the planets and stars based on old astronomical theories. The Earth (at the bottom) provides a benchmark. All bodies are superimposed by order of size, making their relative dimensions evident. A vertical scale of miles gives their individual diameters. Though most of the dimensions shown here are blatantly off by today’s standards, similar visual techniques are still used to convey notions of scale in astronomy.  

Cristiani Hvgenii Zvlichemii : Const. f. Systema Satvrnivm, sive De causis mirandorum Satvrni phaenomenon, et comite ejus Planeta Novo.Adler Planetarium

The Mystery of Saturn, Solved

Early telescopic observations of Saturn revealed a surprise:  it sported two lateral features that astronomers described as “anses” or “handles”, and whose appearance proved to change over time. In 1655 Christiaan Huygens came up with an explanation, which he later summarized in this diagram. Saturn is surrounded by a ring, and that combined with the tilt of its axis and its orbital motion produces its varying appearances as seen from Earth. 

Globe: Celestial, EasternAdler Planetarium

The Sky on a Sphere

When we look up to the sky we get the impression of being inside a giant dome. This led ancient peoples to conceive the universe as a sphere or arrangement of concentric spheres. Celestial globes are reminiscent of such conceptions. They represent the whole sky surrounding the Earth, with the constellations marked on the outer surface of the globe. The same basic design has been used across different cultures. This particular example was made in Lahore, nowadays in Pakistan, in the 17th century. 

Takamagahara ZusetuAdler Planetarium

The Solar System at a Glance 

This 19th-century Japanese print is meant to provide an overall view of our planetary system. Circles are used to represent the orbits of the planets around the Sun. Moons as well as one comet and asteroids are also included. Diagrams like this, which are used to this day, always entail a great degree of simplification, but they help us grasp our very own place in the order of the solar system. 

The Solar SystemAdler Planetarium

Worlds, Big and Small

This painting by space artist Chesley Bonestell shows the relative sizes of the planets and their moons compared to that of the Sun, The Earth (the blue dot on the left) is dwarfed by Jupiter and Saturn, which in their turn are dwarfed by the Sun. The latter is so much larger that only a little part can be shown. In a simple but dramatic fashion, this kind of visualization highlights how small our own planet is from an astronomical perspective. - Image Copyright and Courtesy of Bonestell LLC

Planetarium and TellurianAdler Planetarium

A Portable Planetary System

This mechanical model recreates the motions of the Earth and the Moon when the sharp handle on the right is pushed around the central axis, which is topped by the Sun. In the 18th century such mechanical models, known as orreries, became popular tools for education and amusement, as they provided a vivid tri-dimensional image of the planets orbiting the Sun. This portable orrery dates to the early 19th century and reflects the efforts of instrument makers to make these instruments accessible to a broader clientele. 

Earth's CoreAdler Planetarium

The Earth’s Inner Secrets 

Planetariums have always been meeting points for art and science, and over the decades artists have helped make sky shows ever more engaging. This painting was made by Alfred Schaller for an Adler show around 1990. It takes the viewer into the depths of our planet, showing a volcanic hotspot and illustrating the processes of radioactive decay that contribute to the Earth’s internal heat.

Mira CetiAdler Planetarium

Otherworldly Views

Beginning in the 1940s, the paintings of space artist Chesley Bonestell got America excited about space exploration. An astronomy enthusiast with a background as an architectural draftsman and Hollywood matte painter, Bonestell combined scientific knowledge with artistic imagination to produce stunning views of otherworldly landscapes. This painting places the viewer on the surface of a hypothetical planet orbiting the binary star Mira Ceti, which comprises a red giant and a white dwarf. - Image Copyright and Courtesy of Bonestell LLC

Wright Model | Adler Planetarium by Adler PlanetariumAdler Planetarium

Fly Me Through the Stars: To us earthlings our galaxy, the Milky Way, presents itself as a whitish swath extending across the night sky. That is a result of us sitting inside the disk of the galaxy and seeing stars concentrated along the plane of its disk. In the mid-17th century, way before this was known, the landscaper and teacher Thomas Wright presented an explanation for the Milky Way that Adler staff recreated in this animation. Stars are arranged in space forming hollow spheres, with the Sun pertaining to one of those spheres. When we look tangentially to the surface of our sphere, we see a higher concentration of stars along that direction.

Our 'Galaxy' 4Adler Planetarium

Galactic Vistas

In the mid- 20th century astronomers confirmed the spiral structure of the Milky Way. This was a remarkable achievement requiring observation, theory, and also imagination, since we are stuck to the vicinity of one of the Milky Way’s billions of stars, the Sun. In this painting the space artist Chesley Bonestell helps us imagine how the Milky Way would look like as seen from afar. Today we would  represent the Milky Way as a barred spiral, that is, with a barred-shaped center. - Image Copyright and Courtesy of Bonestell LLC

Try to SpaghetifyAdler Planetarium

“Try to Spaghettify”

Few astronomical objects have the power to excite the public imagination as black holes do. In this painting from 1998, Adler artist Alfred Schaller shows how a black hole distorts spacetime around it, preventing anything from escaping its gravity, light included. Schaller suggestively titled this work “Try to Spaghettify”, alluding to the extreme stretching that affects any object falling into a black hole. 

Pluto Short | Adler Planetarium by Adler PlanetariumAdler Planetarium

Searching for Planet Nine: The reclassification of Pluto as a dwarf planet in 2006 was not a demotion, but actually a recognition of Pluto’s status as the largest object in the so-called Kuiper Belt. The latter is an outer region of the Solar System beyond Neptune that is known to contain thousands of objects. The Kuiper Belt may even harbor a large planet as yet undetected, which is known as Planet Nine. This segment from the Adler’s eponymous sky show takes the viewer to that far-off region of the solar system, in a search of Planet Nine. This visualization is produced in a format that maps to the planetarium dome. The center of the video is over your head, the bottom in front of you and the top behind you.

The Cosmic WebAdler Planetarium

This poster, titled “Cosmic Web,” spans about 240 million light years and shows how galaxies begin to form in regions where dark matter is dense. It also illustrates how they group together by the effect of gravity. The poster was produced by a team including Miguel Angel Aragon Calvo, Julieta Aguilera, and Adler Planetarium astronomer Mark SubbaRao, and received the 1st prize in the 2011 Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge. It proves that, no matter how large the scales of space and time involved and how complex the phenomena, they can always be represented in a way that will please the eye while empowering the mind.

Credits: Story

Thank you to the staff of the Adler Planetarium for their assistance in creating these images of our collection and this exhibition. The Adler also thanks Bonestell LLC, and the Kavli Foundation, for their permission to create this exhibition.

Images of the works of Chesley Bonestell are copyrighted by Bonestell LLC.

Planet Nine is presented by the Kavli Foundation.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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