September 10, 2002
5:31 PM   Subscribe

Celestial Atlases are perhaps some of the most beautiful scientific books ever published, capturing the mystery and the grandeur of the heavens, and rife with beautiful and often intimidating interpretations of the constellations. Out Of This World has been my favorite website since the dawning of time, and one I go back to over and over again even though it never changes. The period from 1603 to 1801 produced the most beautiful star maps, and you don't have to know a thing about astronomy to appreciate how heavenly these are.
posted by iconomy (9 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Great link, iconomy. I have never been able to figure out how ancient astronomers "joined the dots" of stars into the constellations (still can't).
posted by dg at 6:36 PM on September 10, 2002

wow. very cool link, iconomy!
posted by quonsar at 6:59 PM on September 10, 2002

This is the latest in a series of exceedingly cool links. It's been a golden week for mefi. Thanks, ico.
posted by frykitty at 7:06 PM on September 10, 2002

This is a beautiful introduction to star maps. I want to see more. The Harmonia macrocosmica has been a favorite of mine for a long time. The Coelum stellatum Christianum sounds really interesting:
The twelve zodiacal constellations, for example, were renamed for the twelve apostles; so that Taurus the Bull, for example, became St. Andrew. Other notable replacements include The Red Sea for the river Eridanus; the Ark of Noah for the Ship of the Argonauts (right), and the Sepulcher of Christ for Andromeda.
Anyone know of more modern charts, incorporating newer figures into the heavens?

Thanks for this great link iconomy.
posted by bragadocchio at 8:27 PM on September 10, 2002

Bookmarked! I am always fascinated with celestial art, old (possible pre-Columbian petroglyphic star maps) and new (Joan Miro's "Constellation Series"), Also, this artist has created some nice constellation-inspired murals (click on "murals" from the top menu; the link from the photo isn't working).
posted by taz at 11:29 PM on September 10, 2002

This is beautiful, iconomy. I had never seen this site. How dare you withhold this from us as long as you have? Many of the figures remind me of the Aberdeen Bestiary which just preceded many of these cartographies.

These maps have a particular resonance for me. I used to peruse star maps, ancient and modern, in the dusty libraries of my college.

As an undergraduate, I was lucky enough to do a lot of observing runs at telescopes for professors who were otherwise buried in their grants and paperwork. Some of it was optical - observing distant galaxies, plotting their shapes and spins. But most of it was in radio.

One summer I got a chance to do my own research in radio. My typical routine was early evening naps, followed by 11 pm bike rides out to the observatory. My observing routine was something I had planned the previous day and programmed into the computer each night. The telescope and the observatory dome followed my commands - an exact little whirrr and click as the scope chased the constellations across the night sky. I had to carefully watch the output spectra, looking for spikes that might indicate huge interstellar molecular clouds (this is what i was tracking) in my line of sight. As soon as a large spectrum appeared on my computer, I might have to quickly deduce the proper course corrections to start outlining this new discovered cloud. It was exciting stuff - I was looking for traces of an old supernova remnant (in the constellation Eridanus) - but this act of discovery could sometimes be prolonged for hours.

In between these pre-calculated runs I'd have perhaps 10-40 minutes of dead time, waiting time. Sometimes I'd bring books to read or listen to the radio or play around with the observatory computer (it ran on FORTH for those in the know) or, sometimes, dash down to the vast observatory library and page through old star maps.

Everyone should have a chance to hold a modern star map, huge photographic sheets, hundreds of thousands of stars, black on white, mapped out in exact coordinates of right ascension and declination. I would sometimes lay out sheet after sheet of map pages on the library floor (I was given a special key) forming a 6-foot square laminated chessboard of the night sky.

The old maps, though, were something else. Lack of modern precision was over-compensated by imagination. Dusty old tomes with yellowed edges, elaborate design, the presentation steeped in a bygone aesthetic. Paging through these old maps inspired in me a feeling that what I was doing was part of a long, noble and beautiful tradition (quick! time to run back to the telescope) , that this sense of mystery I felt as I looked up at the sky was a shared, ancient intuition.
posted by vacapinta at 12:07 AM on September 11, 2002

Thank you for all the positive feedback and the great links, everyone. I've never linked this site on my weblog or here before, and have never seen it mentioned anywhere, for that matter. It was always my secret little site and I've been keeping it to myself, and not sharing nicely, like my mother taught me. Guilt got the better of me!

I spent my childhood camping out (bravely, in my backyard, 10 feet from the back door of my house) drawing maps of the stars I would see in the sky, and then connecting them with pictures of what I thought the constellations looked like. I felt very important, and as if I was doing something that had to be done for the good of all mankind. And like vacapinta (who is so intriguing that I wish he would start a journal somewhere) the star maps bring back very fond memories. There is such a sense of tradition and mystery and overwhelming awe associated with the stars, and with the studying and recording and mapping of them.

I've been toying with the idea of recreating Bayer's Uranometria (detail) on my hall ceiling. And please note - if you make it to the last page of the exhibition, you're rewarded with a message that says that you can use any of the images for your own personal, non-commercial use. Heaven.
posted by iconomy at 5:02 AM on September 11, 2002

thanks for the link; it's really beautiful. of course in another 200,000 years someone will have had to redraw and rename them 'cos all the stars will have moved...
posted by peterkins at 6:28 AM on September 11, 2002

I for one appreciate this beautiful diversion today and the chance to reflect on how small our place in the universe really is... Thanks, iconomy.
posted by JollyWanker at 9:21 AM on September 11, 2002

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