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Illustrated Astronomy – Our Universe

Aliens! Gods and Godesses! Enormous Space Stations! Rocket Ships and Shuttles! Old, Dead People From History! Am I talking about the new Michael Bay Summer blockbuster? NO! I’m talking about The National Geographic Picture Atlas of Our Universe!

Illustration by Michael R Whelan

Illustration by Michael R Whelan

I like to think about how artists are influenced when they are young. What sort of experiences shape us as artists, as people? For me, I point to the book pictured below. Did you ever see this book? Do you have a copy? My copy was published in 1980 (there was an update in 1995 too) and it shows. The thing is falling apart. That’s how much I went through this book as a kid.

It’s called National Geographic Picture Atlas of Our Universe by Roy A. Gallant. This book contains facts. Some of the facts aren’t facts anymore. Some are now outdated, updated, revised, discarded. As a kid, I loved reading all the facts, figures and charts (and still do). But it was how this was all presented that really captured my young imagination. This book is FULLY ILLUSTRATED.

There are charts, comparisons, examples of scale. There are weird things – like Saturn floating in a beaker, with Earth and Mercury at the bottom (Saturn would float in water if you could fit it in a large enough container), 3D renderings of Jupiter’s enormous magnetosphere that look like giant, wrap-around ears. But the best ones are the “What Ifs?” What if there were life on Mars? On Venus? On Jupiter? What would these Beings look like? How would they have evolved in such harsh environments? What would space stations that could support interstellar travel look like? These questions are explored. And more than that, the are gorgeously illustrated.

Illustration by Ludek Pesek

Illustration by Ludek Pesek

The first thing I remember about looking at this book is the Family Portrait of our Solar System. It is illustrated to scale, so it was the first time I had an inkling as to how unimaginably enormous the Sun is. I used this picture to make our Solar System out of styrofoam spheres for a class project in the 4th grade. I remember using acrylic paint to color each planet. I remember cutting the rings of Saturn out of manilla folders and drawing the separations between each ring with a marker. And all the while Our Universe was guiding me, as I sat at the kitchen counter.

This book is the thing that sparked my love of astronomy and later, of science in general. Soon came the telescope and star charts. The trip to see Halley’s Comet (it was too cloudy to see it in our part of New Jersey). After that, the chemistry set. A trip to the quarry in Franklin, New Jersey to look for mineral ore that we later saw fluoresce under blacklight. Then came the books on physics and cosmology, popular science magazines. And eventually I found blogs, podcasts, and now I get to watch Cosmos on Netflix as often as I like.

And whether I remember correctly or not, I trace all that science-love back to this book. I’ve loved art as far back as I can remember. But the amount I learned from this book, and how it got my imagination bubbling, is a testament to how amazingly well the art aides and conveys the science.

Also, the credits for the illustrations take up an entire page. I love that.

All Images Courtesy of National Geographic
Featured image illustration by John Berkey

I really want to hang out with these Venusian cats

I really want to hang out with these Venusian cats. Illustration by Michael R Whelan


I love this painting so, so much.

I love this painting so, so much. Illustration by Sydney Mead


Meanwhile in California (3.5 billion years from now).

Meanwhile in California (3.5 billion years from now). Illustration by Ludek Pesek


Holy crap that's Hubble in 1979!

Holy crap that’s Hubble in 1979! Illustration by Vincent Di Fate


These are the illustration credits. It's a thing of beauty.

These are the illustration credits. It’s a thing of beauty.

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Brian George

Brian George

Brian George is an illustrator who lives and works in the Van Beardswick neighborhood of Brooklyn. His fierce love of cheesecake is often (but not always) thwarted by his intolerance for lactose. He will draw and paint for your amusement (‘amusement’ is archaic Etruscan slang for ‘money’). Visit his portfolio, follow his tweets @brianggeorge or on G+

11 Comments

  1. June 26, 2013 at 2:10 pm

    For me it was a Time-Life book about the universe. One of my favorite pages was a painting that showed two spiral galaxies colliding. It also had an illustration of the Sun’s lifetime very similar in spirit to this post’s first illustration.

  2. June 26, 2013 at 2:28 pm

    Oops! While I DID include the entire page of illustration credits, I forgot to paste in the artist names for the individual ones used in the body of the post. Will fix when I get home.

  3. June 26, 2013 at 2:29 pm

    @breadbox: Isn’t it wonderful when that happens and really STAYS with you?

  4. June 26, 2013 at 2:38 pm

    Still have mine and the star chart & colour slide kit that came with it on the bookshelf; yes the binding is falling apart.

  5. June 26, 2013 at 4:02 pm

    @Brian G: Indeed — though it’s no surprise, considering how many times I read through it. I spent a lot of time studying the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, until I finally felt I understood why it was important.

    Incidentally, that was the same book that led me to atheism: http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2011/12/02/why-i-am-an-atheist-brian-ralter/

  6. June 26, 2013 at 8:40 pm

    @breadbox: That’s a wonderful essay. I really like it. Also, your first name is just great. Probably the best name out there.

  7. June 26, 2013 at 8:41 pm

    @Adela: Well it looks like I have to get a new copy because I had NO IDEA that it came with a star chart and color slide kit. Damn.

  8. June 26, 2013 at 10:00 pm

    Mine was an old set of Audubon Nature Encyclopedias published back in 1965. Those things were my childhood bible, particularly during summer vacation when I spent most of my time running around outdoors. I spent hours poring over illustrations by Major Allen Brooks and John James Audubon and Roger Tory Peterson, painstakingly copying plates and making my first attempts at painting. The much-lamented volume 7 that my brother lost at school, with its ‘Nature Hobbies’ section that covered building bird houses and (for some ill-advised reason) catching and keeping wild bats as pets.

    Mom tossed them all years ago, unfortunately. One of these days I need to snag myself another set.

  9. June 27, 2013 at 7:50 am

    @quarksparrow: Ooooooo… You DO need to get a new set. I can only imagine how wonderful the plates in those books are.

  10. June 27, 2013 at 6:16 pm

    Brian the kit has a vinyl record of “Space Sounds” and the slides you view by assembling a papercraft model telescope. I no longer have the scope but still have the instruction manual for it and the slides(6 laminated celluloid style strips of 7 images + booklet). I might be able to photograph it all and post them.

  11. July 2, 2013 at 10:56 pm

    @Adela: I would love that! If you have a chance, feel free to post an image in the comments. Just use a link from Imgur or similar.

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