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Cosmic Perspectives

Melanie King

Artist and curator with a specific focus on astronomy

Imagine a diagram of the size of the Earth in relation to the Sun. Next, imagine that our Sun was compared to much bigger stars such as Beetlegeuse, dwarfed by its size. Imagine zooming out from the Milky Way to view our galaxy from the outside, our Sun becomes indistinguishable from the whole galaxy of Suns surrounding it. Take the leap to imagine all of the galaxies surrounding the Milky Way, each with their own cocktail mixture of stars.

This is the mind-game I played as an eight year old kid. I asked my Mum about the size of the universe, and wondered whether it was endless. She replied “If it isn’t endless, then what contains it?”. In this way of thinking, we are faced with the dilemma of the edge. Where does it end? Is there a wall which we will approach, just like The Truman Show? And if there is an edge, then what is on the other side? This question led me to panic as a child, throwing myself on the floor. I realise now that this was not an ordinary experience, not all kids try and get their head around the concept of an endless universe.

I stopped thinking of space for a long time, throughout my adolescence. It was only when an art tutor challenged me to face my fears, that astronomy and cosmology became a fascination. I came across the artist Yayoi Kusama and began to work on meditative, repetitive practice – drawing thousands of circles and loops, chains made from loops of wool, sculptures inspired by Mobius loops and webbed spheres. In Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything” the universe was described as “finite yet boundless”, like a three-dimensional donut shape or globe where you can move in any direction and end up somehow where you started.

Soon, this obsession with space became associated with bubbles and spheres, as I had noticed that the bubble was used as a metaphor for contemporary cosmology. In multiverse theory, the universe exists as a bubble amongst a sea of cosmic foam. In inflation theory, the universe is described as an ever-expanding bubble, where points in space become further and further apart from one another. Suddenly the universe could be compared to something I could observe with my own eyes, and the fear of space became much more palatable. When walking along the South Bank in London or washing up the dishes, I am delighted by the sight of emerging, amorphic bubbles, imagining them as mini universes popping in and out of existence.

The metaphor of the bubble floated further, I began to notice soap bubbles used as a metaphor for the brevity of life in 17th Century Dutch Vanitas paintings. These paintings were designed to give the viewer perspective about their daily lives. “Vanitas Still Life” by Jacques de Gheyn The Elder depicts many Vanitas symbols, the most dominant of which are a skull, cut flowers, smoke and a soap bubble floating top centre.

Vanitas Still Life, Jacques de Gheyn The Elder, 1603

Above the soap bubble lies an inscription “HVMANA VANA” which is translated to “Human

Vanity”. This inscription and its surrounding symbols are then supported by other objects in the painting. At the bottom of the painting, Spanish coins are scattered referring to the vanity of wealth. At the very top of the painting, lies the philosophers Democritus and Heraclitus, they are seen laughing and weeping whilst both pointing at the soap bubble. Here, the symbol of the soap bubble is used as a metaphor for ephemerality, urging the viewer to eschew money and status, encouraging them instead to lead a life of virtue and vitality.

The Vanitas paintings existed within the context of a dominant Christian faith, but I believe that their overall meaning can be compared and recontextualised within our contemporary understanding of the universe. As our knowledge of cosmology has altered over the past century, we have learned that humanity has existed for only a short fragment of time within the timeline of the universe.

With this in mind, I believe that astronomical photographs can operate as a kind-of contemporary Vanitas or Memento Mori, urging their audience to reconsider the value of diverse life-forms on Earth, in an otherwise inhospitable desert of a universe.

In 1987, the writer and philosopher Frank White published The Overview Effect — Space Exploration and Human Evolution which documented thoughts and feelings from astronauts who were able to see the Earth suspended in the darkness of space. Consistently this viewpoint prompted the astronauts to see the Earth as a fragile and interconnected organism.

Having seen the Earth from the Moon, Apollo 9 astronaut "Rusty" Schweickart said:

“The Earth is so small and so fragile and such a precious little spot in that universe that you can block it out with your thumb, and you realize on that small spot, that little blue and white thing, is everything that means anything to you – all of history and music and poetry and art and death and birth and love, tears, joy, games, all of it on that little spot out there that you can cover with your thumb.” 1. (Schweickart & White, 2014 edition, p37)

Similarly, Michael Collins, Apollo 11 astronaut said:

“I think the view from 100,000 miles could be invaluable in getting people together to work out joint solutions, by causing them to realize that the planet we share unites us in a way far more basic and far more important than differences in skin colour or religion or economic system. The pity of it is that so far the view from 100,000 miles has been the exclusive property of a handful of test pilots, rather than the world leaders who need this new perspective, or the poets who might communicate it to them." 1. (Collins & White, 2014 edition, p37)

Similarly, Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell said: “It is one of the more powerful experiences that humans can have, and the technological event of breaking the bonds of Earth is far more important than the technology that went into it, because of this perspective… getting outside of the Earth and seeing it from a different perspective, having this sort of explosive awareness that some of us had, this abiding concern and passion for the well-being of Earth… will have a direct impact on philosophy and value systems.” 1. (Mitchell & White, 2014 edition, p39)

Interestingly the response of Ed Gibson, astronaut present on the SkyLab 4 space station, calls to mind again the 17th Century Vanitas tradition.

You see how diminutive your life and concerns are compared to other things in the universe. Your life and concerns are important to you, of course. But you can see that a lot of the things you worry about don’t make much difference in an overall sense. The result is that you enjoy the life that is before you; you don’t have to sweat so much about the next milestone… It allows you to have inner peace” 1. (Gibson & White, 2014 edition, p41)

The perspective of the Earth from space allowed Gibson a feeling of serenity, which encouraged him to enjoy life. As the memento mori tradition allowed space for rumination on death as a method to vitalise life, the “Overview Effect” allowed astronauts to see the Earth as a small speck within a seemingly infinite universe. On Earth, we are preoccupied with our daily lives which contain real and immediate concerns that need our attention. Absolved from gravity which binds us to the ground, it could be said that the astronauts simultaneously experienced Earth objectively and subjectively. Looking down at our blue planet the astronauts looked at the Earth from the outside, observing the Earth as separate and Other from themselves. Yet, the astronauts looked down on the Earth with the knowledge that they were born of the planet and would soon be going back to it.

With the privilege of this unique view, the astronauts returned with a different perspective of how to conduct their life back on Earth

Space Shuttle astronaut Don L Lind said:

“You can’t see the boundaries over which we fight wars, and in a very real way, the inhabitants of this Earth are stuck on a very beautiful, lovely little planet in an incredibly hostile space, and everybody is in the same boat” 1. (Lind & White, 2014 edition, p43)

Shuttle and ISS Astronaut Sandy Magnus said:

“When you go above the planet, what you see is a system that is highly connected and interwoven.”

(Magnus & White, 2014 edition, p43)

Astronauts Edgar Mitchell and Ed Gibson both lamented that the privilege of the Overview Effect is only given to a select few. For them, the experience of our planet from outside in was a transformative experience which allowed them to value life on Earth deeply.

Since the production of Frank Whites “Overview Effect” in 1987, our planet is facing further ecological catastrophe, as world leaders consistently choose to prioritise profit over the preservation of our natural world. The poetic ecological and political comments provided by the astronauts in The Overview Effect have been subject to criticism by philosophers existing outside of governmentally funded institutions such as NASA.

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt argued that though astronauts have experienced the cosmic perspective, they have also contributed to a perceived disconnection to the natural world.

“The earth is the very quintessence of the human condition, and earthly nature, for all we know, may be unique in the universe in providing human beings with a habitat in which they can move and breathe without artifice. The human artifice of the world separates human existence from all mere animal environment, but life itself is outside this artificial world, and through life man remains related to all other living organisms. For some time now, a great many scientific endeavours have been directed toward making life also “artificial”, toward cutting the last tie through which even man belongs among the children of nature.” 3 (Arendt, 1958, 2-3)

Arendt’s thesis on The Human Condition warns that there is a danger within science and technology to become separated from our natural origins. From altering the embryo to extending the life-span of the human being, Arendt argues that the human species could be abandoning earthliness for something other. If humanity begins to “act as though we are dwellers of the universe” 3 (Arendt, 1958, 2-3) inhabiting other planets, Arendt suggests that we may become alienated from our own Earth. Instead, Arendt posits that we should put our scientific efforts towards preserving our existing planet. The Human Condition was first published in 1958, even before man first stood on the Moon, though images of the Earth had begun to emerge through satellite photography.

View of Earth from a camera on V-2 #13, launched October 24, 1946. (White Sands Missile Range/Applied Physics Laboratory)

Throughout “The Human Condition” Arendt encourages us to think deeply about our actions, to consider what we are doing. Scientific and technological progress seems to be exponentially fast, we move from one technological innovation to the next, without much thought towards the consequences.

It is likely that the average person will not able to experience the “Overview Effect” for themselves, and are therefore not able to experience the kind of shift in perception that astronauts felt. However, I posit that by learning about astronomy and by taking time to observe the stars, it is possible to obtain some kind of “Cosmic Perspective” from a terrestrial standpoint.

Contemporary astronomical research tells us that conscious life is extremely rare in both time and space. When we look into a sky full of stars, we do so with the knowledge that we have not yet found a planet which holds complex life forms. In this way, astronomy not only teaches us that life is rare and precious, but also that humans and are immediate environment are closely related to distant stars due to our material construction.

As Marek Kukula says in his book “Intimate Universe”:

“Earth itself is not a closed system, cut off from the rest of the universe. Our environment does not stop at the top of the atmosphere and there is no invisible barrier there to seal our planet into an inpenetratable bubble. On the contrary, planet Earth is constantly interacting with it’s surroundings, and extra-terrestrial influences continue to shape our world in every conceivable way. From the sunlight that warms us, during our weather and powering our food chains, to the gravitational forces that control the tides and keep the Earth on it’s seasonal track. Objects in space exert a profound and immediate influence on our daily life.

The connections go much deeper than that – every molecule, atom and subatomic particle on Earth can trace it’s origin out to the wider cosmos, even with an astonishing story to tell, involving comets and nebulae, titanic collisions and exploding stars and stretching into the depths of the galaxy and back to the origins of the universe itself. To understand how our planet came to be the way it is and how its life sustaining geology, climate and biosphere operate today, we need to consider the Earth as a component in a much larger system.” 3 (Kukula, 2015, 2)

Cosmic Perspectives & Materiality

In my practice I visit dark sky spaces around the world to capture light from distant stars directly onto photosensitive film. Within my series “Ancient Light” I am to capture light that has travelled thousands, if not millions of years, directly onto photosensitive film. I am thinking about the photon on it’s journey from A to B, emitted from a giant star, travelling through the seeming void of space and imbuing itself within the silver gelatin emulsion. Unlike its’ digital counterpart, the analogue astronomical negative is materially altered, and therefore I believe this action makes us feel closer to the universe at large. This action is analogous to sitting on the beach allowing the Sun to tan our skin, or the phenomena of phototropism where a leaf is allowed to photosynthesize. Unlike a digital astrophotograph, I can take this indexical negative in my hands and make a positive print. Light from the enlarger shines around the edges of the silver halide atoms that have been blackened by starlight, to create a positive print. This may seem overly simplistic, but to me the negatives and resultant prints are representative of an unfathomable amount of time. From my perspective, the Ancient Light negatives more closely resemble the rings of a tree that indicate hundreds of years, the fossil of an ammonite or the bubbles of gas trapped within ancient ice-cores.

My interest in photographic processes has always been about the relationship between the natural world, light and the transformation of material. My interest was peaked by Helen Chadwick’s “Ego Geometria Sum”, as I learned that her wooden geometric solids were painted over with silver gelatin emulsion and exposed to light. Learning about silver gelatin emulsion, I realised that it could be applied to wood, metal, glass and marble. I then began to learn about natural light-sensitivity, and artists using the process of photosynthesis to create images on plants. I found a natural affinity with cyanotype as it allowed photographic prints to be made with ultraviolet light from our own star, and was invented by polymath chemist and astronomer Sir John Herschel. In 2015, I collaborated with Jaden Hastings, Constanza Isaza and Andres Pantoja to create giant world-record cyanotypes demonstrating the intrinsic relationship with our Sun, humanity and photosensitive material. Jaden coined this action “photopoesis”, creating visual poetry with light.

As I began my practice-based PhD at the Royal College of Art, I took the parallel histories of photography and astronomy as a starting point for my research. I pored over astronomical glass plates at the Royal Astronomical Society and large photographic prints from the Apollo 11 mission at the UCL Space History Archive. I thought about William Henry Fox Talbot viewing the solar eclipse in 1851, and about James Herschels relationship with his father William Herschel. I considered James Clerk Maxwell with his scientific theories of electromagnetism and his pioneering work which resulted in the first durable colour photograph in 1861. In July 2018, I visited the Mount Wilson Observatory, the Hale Solar Laboratory and the Carnegie Science Archive to look closely at silver gelatin glass plates, including plates from astronomer Edwin Hubble who demonstrated that galaxies exist beyond the Milky Way, something that vastly altered our collective understanding of the size of the universe.

Recently, I have begun to work with existing observatories, such as Kielder Observatory and the UCLO Observatory, with the aim of creating analogue photographs of stars using a range of contemporary and historical instruments. I regularly visit the UCLO Observatory to work with Theo Schlichter, taking photographs through the 19th Century Fry Telescope. It has been a challenge to work out how it is possible to take analogue photographs of stars using telescopes in 2018. We often use a century-old telescope, with a 1980’s Canon Rebel 35mm camera and brand new high ISO film. The last time I visited the UCLO Observatory, we pointed the telescope at the Double Cluster in Perseus, and considered that light had travelled 7500 years before reaching Earth. If you can, try to imagine what has happened on Earth since that photon left the Double Cluster? In the space of 7500 years, entire civilisations have risen to power and then fallen away.

The action of capturing light from a distant star helps me to feel connected to the universe at large. When I feel that I am part of a larger system, I naturally consider the ecology of Earth and how the Earth is positioned within space itself. As I have learned more about astronomy, increasingly my daily choices are made with the fragile ecosystem of Earth in mind.

Unfortunately, now it is harder than ever to view the Milky Way as light pollution increases. In his essay “Our Vanishing Night”, Verlyn Klinkenborg describes this phenomenon:

“For the past century or so, we've been performing an open-ended experiment on ourselves, extending the day, shortening the night, and short-circuiting the human body's sensitive response to light. The consequences of our bright new world are more readily perceptible in less adaptable creatures living in the peripheral glow of our prosperity. But for humans, light pollution may take a biological toll. At least one new study has suggested a direct correlation between higher rates of breast cancer in women and the nighttime brightness of their neighborhoods.

In the end, humans are no less trapped by light pollution than the frogs in a pond near a brightly lit highway. Living in a glare of our own making, we have cut ourselves off from our evolutionary and cultural patrimony—the light of the stars and the rhythms of day and night. In a very real sense, light pollution causes us to lose sight of our true place in the universe, to forget the scale of our being, which is best measured against the dimensions of a deep night with the Milky Way—the edge of our galaxy—arching overhead.” 4 (Klinkenborg, 2009, Our Vanishing Night: National Geographic)

Increasingly, artificial light obscures our view of the cosmos, meaning that we are less likely to view a sky full of stars. With the crisis of light pollution, we are less able to view the stars in our sky, which prompt us to consider the distance and scale of Earth in comparison to the larger universe.

In 2013, Paul Bogard published the book “The End of Night: Searching for Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light”, which considers the effect of light pollution on our experience of the night sky. In the past century, artificial light has become increasingly prevalent, interfering with ecosystems and human behaviour. In his book, Bogard asserts that every living creature suffers from the loss of dark nights.

“Light at night impacts wildlife in five primary areas: orientation, predation, competition, reproduction and circadian rhythms”5 (Bogard, 2014,The End Of Night)

Artificial lights simply confuse animals who do not understand the difference between natural and artificial lights. It is not only wildlife that suffers, humanity is suffering from a disconnect with our celestial neighbours. It is only within the last century, that we have begun to sideline ancient techniques such as celestial navigation and the monitoring of lunar phases in preference of technology that can do this for us. Throughout history, our ancestors have used the Sun, Moon and Stars as calendars and clocks, and have built monuments such as Stone Henge in the United Kingdom, New Grange in Ireland and Chaco Canyon in the American Southwest.

In contrast to our ancestors, Paul Bogard provides an example from the Travis Longcore of the Urban Wildlands Group based in Los Angeles. Travis regularly teaches in schools in Los Angeles, and makes the point that all of the children can think of three TV sitcoms, but find it difficult to point out the species of three different plants. He says: Unless we pay attention to nature in the places where people live, there will be no constituency for nature in the places where people don’t live. People who grow up and never have the opportunity to go to a vacant lot and play with woolly bear caterpillars, or raise a swallowtail butterfly from a larva, or to see the Milky Way just cannot have the sort of deep connection to land and nature on which our who conservation enterprise in this country is based.” 5 (Bogard, 2014,The End Of Night)

In our daily lives, typically we do not pay attention to the orbit of the Earth around the Sun and the Moon around the Earth. However, it is still possible to see the solar flares of the Sun and features of the Moon and planets in a city as polluted as London. I am co-director of two organisations (Lumen Studios and super/collider) which have provided telescope viewings in central parts of London since 2014. In this time we have seen the craters of the Moon, the rings of Saturn, the moons of Jupiter and some bright stars such as Arcturus. As with most natural wonders, looking up to the sky at night to identify the constellations is an incredible experience which can be done for free. Both experiences of reading the astronauts accounts of seeing the Earth from space and the act of viewing a night sky full of stars can help us to consider the preciousness of diverse life-forms on Earth - we are reminded that we are part of something much larger than ourselves.



White, Frank. 2013. “The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution”, Third Edition.

Arendt, Hannah. 1959. The Human Condition.

Kukula, Marek. 2015. “The Intimate Universe”. Quercus Books.

Klinkenborg, Verlyn, 2009. “Our Vanishing Night”. National Geographic.

Bogard, Paul. 2014. “The End of Night: Searching for Darkness In The Age of Artificial Light. Bac Bay Books.


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