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(posted on 6 Dec 2023)

My God, it's not full of stars...


I've often like to think of drawing, which of course involves taking the time to look intensely at form and space from a human perspective, is a a conduit to critical thinking. This is in good part because if we draw a lot we very soon discover that what we perceive with our eyes is not the same as what is seen with a camera, despite their structure being very similar to a camera. Similarly we very quickly learn that what cameras 'see' or capture is often vastly different from what is actually before us. Drawing makes us...well it certainly made me...have less trust in what I see and not take it for granted. I'll probably do a number of posts that deal with this notion in various ways.

The title of this post, of course, alludes to what astronaut David Bowman explains when he enters The Stargate, not in the movie, which is sublimely silent except for mounting ethereal choral music, but in the novel by Arthur C. Clarke based on his own screenplay for Stanley Kubrick's film. Bowman, of course, says 'My God, it's full of stars...' And that's generally how we think of the universe; full of stars. We think that because that's what we see when, without light pollution, we look into the night sky, and even bring binoculars or telescopes (camera devices) on small sections of the sky, which brings even greater numbers of stars into view. And in fact, the deeper we zoom into space (and therefore time) the more and more stars and other even larger and further celestial objects emerge into view, allegedly going back to shortly after the Big Bang, when the universe first began lighting up, in one wavelength or another. So we are easily convinced the universe is full of stars. This conviction of a universe brimming with stars is further fortified by our reading of science fiction, or viewing of it in films, which are fairy tales of sorts, in which, generally speaking interstellar civilizations are regularly conjured up, along with multiple species of aliens. The number of stars in the observable universe is truly staggering, even more staggering than we can actually imagine, within the constraints of our evolutionary upbringing at a scale somewhere between infinitely large and infinitely small. Our comprehension of numbers...mine anyway, is one to ten (then I run out of observable fingers), ten to one hundred (I could once count to 100 without losing my train of thought...lots...massive amounts...and incomprehensible quantities (naturally these are incomprehensible to me)...despite mathematical devices to make them workable, like exponents. Then there is The Drake Equation, which takes the enormous numbers of stars and therefore presumably planets in our galaxy and attempts, through equation inputs, to come up with a probabilistic number of planets with life, intelligent life, and civilizations. It's a thought experiment, and it depends how enthusiastic you are with numbers, or with the emergence of life (bear in mind that on Earth, life started almost immediately after the cooling of the planet). Whatever numbers/probabilities you punch into Drake's equation, low or high, surprising results are yielded, and it is easy to imagine a galaxy teeming with not just life but stars and civilizations. (Of course, if this is the case for technological civilizations, where are they? This is The Fermi Paradox, another wonderful device that asks questions and yields fascinating answers). The equation, and results distilled from running it, also provide a felt sense of the staggering number of stars in the sky. Finally, recently this impression has been further fortified with space telescopes; first the Hubble and now the Webb. We can now find photos of the tiniest tracts of the night sky that are almost white with stars, and infer that every part of the sky would be similarly populated. Indeed, it seems that if we could see far enough into space with a long enough exposure the night sky would be pure white. Everything points to a universe chock-a-block full of celestial objects.

Obviously the title of this posts suggests I'm suspicious. As an artist I know that what I see and am stimulated to visually imagine/infer isn't necessarily as things are. I've been deluded many times over and only by careful observation have had a different visual reality revealed. As well as observing form I study space. I know how focusing in on, cropping, 'zooming in' alters visual reality. It's been a tool to attempt to create dramatic landscapes, and is a device that photographers use regularly to tell visual lies, for example, for travel brochures. I know how the relationships between various objects embedded in three dimensional space can be altered by projecting them on a two dimensional surface (or imagined one), which is what I often do when drawing and measuring angles and proportions to transfer to my paper. I know how depth of field is contracted to almost non existence. When working in animation no more occasions than I can recall I had to paint 'star fields'; we'd paint a wash of gouache for the colour of deep space and then use a toothbrush with white paint to populate the imagined tract of the universe with stars. After, we'd go over all the splatters and enhance some for greater intensity and also add colour to some, blue or red, to suggest different wavelenghts of light. This superficially added a depth of field to the two dimensional representation; but only superficially. Deep down I knew that I had no real concept of the real distances between the stars that I was trying to represent. If, in space, no one can hear you scream, light nevertheless travels incomprehensibly long distances in the 'vacuum' of space.

When teaching, I devote a lot of time to the lies that our vision, and cameras, propagate. I'd give examples of different camera views, different vanish points on perspective grids, provide examples of how zooming in on a small area of a field of vision alters the relationships of the objects within it. If I were teaching now I'd start with the universe, and the assumptions that we almost naturally make about it; that it is teeming with stars. Because, as you know, I'm not just suspicious about this notion, but know that if I frame our field of vision differently the perception will be 'My God, it's not full of stars...' 

In order to re-frame my notion of the universe I wondered how...let's start with our galaxy...might appear if the average sun were the size of a grain of sand. I Googled 'if our sun was a grain of sand...' and discovered of course, I'm not the only person who has wondered this. The conjecture is apparently epidemic in science classes. 

So, if suns in general were the size of a grain of sand, there are various napkin calculations available, that all more or less square up. There's apparently about 100 billion starts in the galaxy, so  much sand would that represent? Apparently half a tennis course 1 meter high of sand. That is an astonishing amount of sand, and we would be justified in thinking that, yes, the galaxy and universe is teeming with starts. But lets spread those stars/grains of sand out to real distances. Lets collapse the astonishing depth of field that astronomical photography represents. If the sun were a grain of sand, our solar system might be 3.5 meters across, or 30 km across depending on where we define the boundary and how big we define a grain of sand. If the sun were a grain of sand our Milky Way galaxy might be 350,000 km across. So imagine the sand representing stars in the galaxy on that half tennis course scattered about on a disc 350,000 km wide; they becomes incredibly diffuse.  

If we imagine the earth a grain of sand, the size of a dot ending a sentence, our sun is apparently the size of a billiard ball. Bigger (and shorter lived) other observed suns would be about 39 meters in diameter. Our sand sized planet would orbit our billiard ball sun at a distance of 6 meters. Pluto would orbit the sun at a distance of 232 meters. The nearest star would be 1572 km away from our billiard ball sized sun. Our galaxy would then be 46,375,000 km in diameter. Picture