Thursday, July 6, 2000
Gaze up at the night sky when there''s no fog lingering and try to imagine what those twinkling specks look like up close. If you can picture the rocky landscape of Mars or the subtly colored swirl of a galaxy, part of the thanks must go to Galileo and part to a telescope on a remote mountain ridge in Carmel Valley.
Nearly 400 years ago, Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei advanced the studies of nature, science and art at the speed it took Han Solo''s Millennium Falcon to hit hyperdrive. Galileo experimented with observations from a new invention--a telescope that allowed nearby stars and planets to be seen with the naked eye. He was also keenly interested in accurate perspectives being applied by Renaissance artists and how art was connected to his "new science."
Technology in space has led us millions of miles, physically and figuratively, beyond Galileo. But because of his first step, we have beautiful and ethereal photographs of places we could only fantasize about, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and even a telescope in Tassajara.
Some of those images are on display at the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History in "Exploring the Universe from the Central Coast," a comprehensive exhibit from the Monterey Institute for Research in Astronomy. MIRA, founded in 1972, has become one of the most respected astronomy centers on the West Coast, due to its enthusiastic staff and one of the clearest star-gazing locations in the nation.
The exhibit spans MIRA''s history, from the installation of a 36-inch telescope at its Oliver Observing Station on Chews Ridge to the 1999 creation of "Field Trip to the Stars," an online, interactive education program for all ages. The exhibit is a scale replica of our known universe built along three walls of a museum room, starting as you enter with our solar system and moving through the Milky Way galaxy and then to all that space beyond that groups like MIRA and NASA are busy exploring.
The Milky Way mural on the back wall was hand-painted by local artist Snick Farkas, with three bands of white specks representing stars in the "arms" of the galaxy. This type of imagery-- scientifically authentic yet artistically beautiful--is gaining popularity as new regions of space are found each day.
The International Association of Astronomical Artists, close kin to fantasy artists like H.R. Giger (Aliens) but more reality-based, drafted a mission statement that sums up space art well: "A firm foundation of knowledge and research is the basis for each painting. Striving to accurately depict scenes which are at present beyond the range of human eyes, they communicate a binding dream of adventure and exploration as they focus on the final frontier...at times the art may step outside the bounds of scientific rendering, to address the broader implications that space poses for humanity."
Exhibit panels explain milestones in astronomic history (Galileo found four moons of Jupiter in 1610!), the birth of stars and light, pulsar sounds, and MIRA''s involvement with much of it. One section depicts how MIRA founder Bruce Weaver and Dr. Ana Torres-Dodgen used artificial intelligence techniques developed at MIRA to classify stars in the near-infrared part of the spectrum.
But just as fascinating, and more visually appealing, are the photographs and images of distant worlds made possible by space telescopes and artistic eyes of astronomers. The mysterious stars and foreign planets inspire curiosity from Earthlings. Amateurs with patience and some good equipment can photograph the moon or bright stars they see each night, but technical expertise isn''t everything--imagination is one of the strongest elements of astrophotography.
The crisp and colorful photographs taken of the Horsehead and Orion nebulas by Bruce Weaver using the OOS tele- scope bring to life objects that are millions of miles away and millions of years old, even as you gaze through the lens.
Whether these photographs of space inspire in viewers a sense of great hope or a feeling of insignificance, they expand the human experience. Know that you''re in good company when you admire MIRA''s research--the Friends of MIRA volunteer group began in the home of photographer Ansel Adams in 1974, and he knew a thing or two about art.
"Exploring the Central Coast" is the first astronomy exhibit hosted by the P.G. Museum of Natural History. It runs through Sept. 24. Forest and Central, 648-3116. MIRA''s "Field Trip to the Stars" can be found at www.mira.org