Uranometria - Measuring the sky

Tania Kovats - August 2013

Uranometria was a star atlas produced by the lawyer and celestial cartographer Johann Bayer 1572-1625. He was a uranographer, someone that draws the stars. It was published in Augsburg, Germany, in 1603, named after the Greek muse of astronomy Urania, and was the first atlas to cover the entire celestial sphere. No one had tried to throw a grid over the whole night sky before, his grid caught the stars in his mesh of projections. This grid made it possible to see each drawing as part of a whole. He included twelve star formations from the Southern Hemisphere that had not been seen by many in the north but had been described by explorers. His systems of naming, measurement and placement determined how star atlases would be drawn from then on; and his methods still exert influence in contemporary forms of star mapping.

The images are a night sky in negative, the brighter the star the darker the blot that represents them. Beautiful creatures and specters inhabit the pages, according to their nature,either flying, dancing, swimming, slithering, striding or scuttling, across the space of the pages of Uranometria.

Throughout human history there have always been attempts to map the biggest thing we see. Stellar cartographers from all cultures throughout time have tried to group and draw the stars. This has often taken the form of seeing living forms in the constellations. The deep human drive to participate in the universe has led all cultures to weave narratives into the stars, and map the movements of the heavens. The position of the stars has made navigation possible, the elevation of the pole star tells a mariner their latitude, and it is only after leaving Mediterranean latitudes that Ursa Major might dip below the horizon. On land, the stars formed the calendar and clock of agriculture and existence.

When great Orion sinks, the time has come
To plough; and fittingly, the old year dies.

Works and Days
5th C BC

The skies of our ancestors used to hang lower, ancient Korean or Sumarian astronomers only had to climb the stairs of their ziggurats to view the stars close at hand. The depth of space had not been realized.

The more urgent orientation concerned the centre of things. Each civilization and epoch has its views on this, with the accepted orthodoxy of the time saying much about the identity of a culture's belief system. The evolution of how to answer that question, or how to dissolve the certainty of the orthodox view is a history of scientific thinking all of its own; the Greeks and Romans certain of the earth's centrality and fixed position, Aristotle and Ptolemy content with a small universe, with a fixed earth at its centre. Western Christian orthodoxy vehemently resisted the discoveries afforded by the telescope and leaps of conceptual thinking made by Copernicus and Galileo

The unknown is compelling territory and forever receding. The ocean floor bed and space are our most remote landscapes. It was the relationship between the seas and the night sky that allowed astronomy to take its next steps. Timothy Ferris in his Coming of Age of the Milky Way (1988) places the two interlinked explorations in context:

"Copernicus was a student at the University of Cracow when Columbus landed in the Indies. He was forty-nine years old when Magellen's ship completed its circumnavigation of the globe. He sent his mind's eye journeying to the sun, and what he saw turned the earth into a ship under sail, assaying oceanic reaches of space undreamed of since the days of Aristarchus of Samos."

The world was getting bigger, its dimensions had doubled by 1600. Blue water sailing meant the night sky needed better maps. It is hard to imagine the thoughts of the navigator, having sailed out of Belem, and their known European sky, as they watched the pole star sink below the northern horizon; or their thoughts as they see the six bright stars of the Southern Cross for the first time, as yet unnamed, appear in its place. As Leon Frobenius put into words a century later " Our View is confined no longer to a spot of space on the surface of this earth. It surveys the whole of the planet...This lack of horizon is something new."

I have been invited to complete a residency at Cambridge University Astronomy Department. The focus of my time spent at the university is Gaia. Gaia is a space observatory being launched by the European Space Agency in the autumn of 2013 whose mission is to map the Milky Way for the first time. This is an unmanned observatory in space that will be transmitting data to earth for a five year period. During that time it will log the position of every visible celestial object that falls within its gaze, which will probably amount to one billion objects in space. Gaia has two telescopes providing two observing directions with a fixed angle between them. The spacecraft rotates continuously around an axis in order to make precise and relative measurements of objects from both observing directions. Gaia maps speed and movement as much as place.

One of my first questions was how do you make a map if you have no fixed point of reference, no grid, no north. Where you stand to look at the stars determines what stars you see. This observatory is already in space, is orbiting, and has no fixed place to view from, as well as no fixed point to measure off of. It has taken many years to work this out but it will be the larger of the black holes that will operate as points of fixed reference for Gaia. I am not sure I can imagine stranger anchoring points.

Gaia's activity is one of mapping but its primary goal is to investigate the origins and subsequent evolution of our Galaxy. Gaia's harvest will be far reaching. It is going to look for gravitational waves, the ripples in the fabric of space, testing Einstein's theory of General Relativity as never before.

One of our most fundamental orientations is to ask how did it all begin, and how will it all end. All cultures have creation myths, and our own predictions of armageddons. The universe most likely began as a tiny dot. This condensed dot experienced a massive inflation, a bang so big that it continues to carry matter apart for billions of years. As the universe expanded and cooled gravity operated an opposing force, pulling some of that matter together, which formed galaxies and stars. These two opposing dynamics, expansions and contractions, the in breath and the out breath, are the dominant formative powers of the universe. The pace was perfect, any slower and the universe would have collapsed, any quicker and it would have expanded too fast to form structures.

The universe was initially obscured, cloudy, light could not travel through it. It was a series of waves passing through the universe, waves which were fluctuations in the density of matter, pulsing through everything, that started to break up the cloud and separate out the universe.

There are huge gravitational waves pulsing through the Milky Way. These are density waves that cause the collapse of gas clouds transforming them into stars that burn brightly until they explode or die out. This then passes the wave on to ignite and form new stars. The wave is the disturbance that passes energy through space and matter. (Is this something we already know? What holds our attention when we stand at the edge of the sea, endlessly held by the spell of the wave?)

Astronomy has spent the last five hundred years de-centering. The Milky Way, our galaxy, is a vast spiraling disc with arms. It is not correct to image these arms rotating around a 'centre' as our Milky Way is only one of several galaxies rotating around each other. We occupy a centre that is only one of many centers. This is what Edwin Hubble first recognized looking through the Hooker Telescope at the Mount Wilson Observatory in 1924. This is the reality that is currently being absorbed into our collective consciousness, that our understanding of the idea of centre now has to be that we live in a multi-centered universe, all expanding and revolving around each other. This is the sort of knowledge that dissolves the possibility of orientation or place or home.

I read these processes like making. Making a drawing, marks expanding or clustering, starting with a dot, and all subject to forces. Making an object, from the inside out or the outside in. Formation and contained energy. Clouds, mists and obscurification, or clearings, understandings, marks or light traveling in straight lines. I read these narratives, new to me, through the lens of my processes as with these narratives I am taken too far from what I can grasp; I am left scattered and need to return from the abstract. I look again at the Crab in Uranometria and scuttle away like this bottom feeder, moving sideways, and not yet grown into the new shell all this thinking about the stars demands. I make bread, dig or fold sheets. I have to do something small, contained, and ordered where I can see the edges. I want to be a uranographer but I am not sure where to begin. I start by drawing the books that have taken me away.

The French sociologist of science Bruno Latour reflects on the vast extensions of time and space of astronomy and deconstructs them into the realm of the tangible, reminding us where space and the practice of space happens:

'We the readers, do not live inside space, that has billions of galaxies in it; on the contrary, this space is generated inside the observatory. The firm grasp the astronomer has over it comes from the small ruler he firmly places to a map of the sky. Time and space are not independent. We only achieve these immense galaxies at a distance through combining stable readable information at a centre of calculation such as an observatory.'

Bruno Latour
Science in Action 1987


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Tania Kovats

Tania Kovats' practice encompasses sculpture, installation, drawing and time-based works exploring our experience and understanding of landscape.



Tania Kovats

May 2013 to April 2014


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