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!
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 Some are now outdated, updated, revised, discarded.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.
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