Wednesday, January 25, 2012

CultureLab - The solar system on paper

Kat Austen, CultureLab editor
Astronomical-01a-low.jpg(Image: Mishka Henner)

Ever wanted to hold the universe in the palm of your hand? Well, you can't. But thanks to artist Mishka Henner, you can hold the solar system in your outstretched arms - or at least a scale version of it, with a bit of artistic license thrown in.
Henner's newest project, Astronomical, is a book series that contains the whole solar system, in miniature. Each page of the 12-volume epic represents one million kilometres of the six billion between the Sun and Pluto. Starting with our double-page spanning star, Henner's first volume ranges through page after page of blackest black until you happen upon the tiny speck that is Mercury...or is that just a blip in the printing? It's hard to be sure.
Earth, being larger, is easier to identify, but eerily ghostly in black and white miniature, dwarfed by the expanse of darkness surrounding it.
That's just the impression Henner is going for. He wants the 6,000 pages to demonstrate just how lonely and surrounded by nothingness we are. To this end, Henner made the book as cold and unsentimental as possible, "because the universe is cold, isn't it? And isolated, lost, lonely," he says.
And it really works. The physicality of turning over thousands of pages of uninterrupted black brings home the scale of how far we are from the other planets orbiting the sun. How many books it would take to get to the next nearest star? Henner has already worked it out - 79,000, he tells me.
Henner’s interest in nothingness was piqued when he heard about the cosmonauts' experiences on space station Mir . "What the cosmonauts taught us was that being up there and staring out into the void just makes you want to go home," he tells me.
Prior to Astronomical, Henner put together an as yet unpublished 400 page book of the Ultra Deep Field image, which was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2004. The telescope was focussed for 12 days on an "empty" part of the universe, revealing 10,000 previously undiscovered galaxies. Henner likens the impact of that image to that of the first pictures of Earth - a shift in consciousness to highlight the real scale of the universe. Given its size, "it's impossible that we're alone in the universe," he says.
For Astronomical, Henner teamed up with his maths whizz friend to work out the average orbital distance of the planets from the sun, before figuring out how to scale them down to fit into his 6,000-page series. Each planet is illuminated from the left by the sun on the first page of volume one, and is positioned on the right-hand page of its spread, squarely half-way down - which Henner tells me is a case of artistic license rather than fortuitous average orbital radius values.
It's a neat idea. Henner seemed quietly amused that the realisation of it also meant he could trundle unassumingly around London with the entire solar system in his otherwise unremarkable suitcase. He assures me he has read the entire 12 volumes. And how was it? He replies with only one word. "Meditative."

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