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"Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light;
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night."
-- Sarah Williams (1837-1868), Twilight Hours: A Legacy of Verse
"No one reguards what is before his feet; we all gaze at the stars."
-- Quintus Ennius (239-169 B.C.)

Light Pollution Obscures Inspirations to Our Culture.

Image of Van Gogh's Starry Night.From ancient mythologies, Van Gogh's painting of Starry Night, the song of the "Dawning of the Age of Aquarius" (NO, that has not happened yet!), to science fiction stories and the popularity of science based television shows, such as Cosmos, of today, astronomy has been a constant source of inspiration for cultures all across the world for centuries. Yet the growth of light pollution robs us of those humbling wonders of the night that has not only so captivated and impelled us to create glorious works that span time, but been a huge mystery that impelled scientists across the ages to uncover secrets of the universe and, in doing so, gave us knowledge that we benefit from every day.

More astro-art works can be found at:

This page is an attempt to recount some examples of astronomy's entry into our collective imaginations and culture.

"The stars hang bright above, silent, as if they watched the sleeping earth."
-- Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)
"Be humble for you are made of earth.
Be noble for you are made of stars."
-- Serbian proverb

Image of Comet Hyakutake


From what distant universal space... so vast... so cold
Did your journey find its start?
To captivate my soul and my heart?
Seduction is your game! can you be so bold?
I raise my glass to breathlessly catch your trail
And I marvel at you in the night!
Icy, eerie Comet ... awesome orb in flight
I dream to ride on your mysterious, misty tail!
The sight of you steals my breath away ... you thief!
You come every night to tease and astound...
Then vanish off to another without a sound!
My time with you is precious ... but much too brief!
Soon you will be gone ... to only where Heaven knows!
But, two millennia hence ... when you reappear,
I'll be much too busy for you, my dear
I'll be making my very own nighttime starlit shows!
millie heimlich   4-4-97

Barry N. Heimlich, Research Affiliate of the Florida Center for Environmental Studies at FAU, shared the above poem that was written by his mother. He said that in 1996 he took his then 80 year old mother to the edge of the Everglades near Loxahatchee NWR to see comet Hyakutake. In her later life she wrote beautiful poems, some of which were published in magazines. Her poem likens the comet to a lover who stole her heart and too soon flew off in the night. She lived the last 24 years in Kings Point in Delray Beach and was the president of the Queens Club, a club of 200 former residents of Queens NY that lived in Kings Point right up to her death at age 85 in 2002.

"Ye stars! Which are the poetry of heaven!"
-- Lord Byron (1788 - 1824)
"The sky is the daily bread of the eyes."
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson, 25 May 1843 journal entry
"Today gives us a chance to love, to work, to play, and to look up at the stars."
-- Henry Van Dyke

"E tu, Brute? - Then fall Shakespeare!"

This next item is about a small, incorrect, and yet interesting usage of astronomy in one of Shakespeare's plays. It also became a good question for students in quizzes or homework problems.

In Shakespeare's play of "Julius Caeser", the Senators were concerned about the dictatorship of Julius Caeser, his increasing popularity and whether or not he would accept growing proclamations to become king. If he did so, he would not only completely end the Republic's rule but, of course, the Senator's positions as well. In Act III, Scene i, he is confronted by the Senators with a question about citizen Cimber's banishment.

Julius replied to the Senators that:

"I could be well moved, if I were as you;
If I could pray to move, prayers would move me:
But I'm as constant as the Northern Star,
Of whose true-fixed and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.
The skies are painted with unnumb'red sparks,
They are all fire, and every one doth shine;
But there's but one in all doth hold his place.
So in the world: 'tis furnished well with men,
And men are flesh and blood, and apprehensive;
Yet in the number I do know but one
That unassailable holds on his rank,
Unshaked of motion; and that I am he,
Let me a little show it, even in this -
That I was constant Cimber should be banished
And constant so remain to keep him so."

The Senators immediately responded to his megalomania by stabbing him to death.

But this entire monologue is a mistake on Shakespeare's part, for old Jules would have never said this. Why?

A: Due to the Earth's precession, during Julius Caeser's time there was no appreciable Northern star to "be constant by". He never would have made that speech in the first place for it simply would have never occurred to him that there was any star in the sky that was constant.

Shown below is a computer generated image of what the positions of the stars would have been as seen from Rome, Italy, on March 15, 44 B.C. (the Ides of March) at 2 a.m. local time. Polaris, our current north star, is not any closer to the North Celestial Pole than any of the other stars in Ursa Minor. They all would have been moving.

The North Celestial Pole as seen from Rome, Italy, on March 15th, 44 B.C.

"The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork."
-- Book of Psalms 19:1 (The Holy Bible [kjv])
"No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit."
-- Helen Keller

The Roden Crater Project of James Turrell

"It is a volcanic crater located in an area of exposed geology, the Painted Desert, an area where you feel geologic time. You have a strong feeling of standing on the surface of the planet."

-- James Turrell

I know no other greater example of an astronomically inspired art than James Turrell's Roden Crater Project.

The Roden Crater is a natural cinder volcano at the southwest edge of the Painted Desert in Northern Arizona. Since 1972, James Turrell has been transforming the crater into a large-scale artwork by digging chambers and tunnels inside the cone with openings out to the sky, and pathways around the crater's surface. His goal is so that the visitor can better relate to the universe of the surrounding sky, land and culture, by the light that comes to them. From the website, it looks like he is done!

To achieve his vision, the artist chose Roden Crater, which is 400 feet above the horizon. He slightly changed the crater's bowl natural shape, to help fine tune the viewer's perception of the sky. Chambers in the crater will allow us to see, measure and even "feel" the passage of time through the movement of the stars and planets. Other spaces reveal the more subjective nature of our human relationship to time, light and space - the pyrotechnics of sunrise or sunset or the sensation of light as a material substance. The Roden Crater Project tries to get visitors to see the sky and time itself.

"The strangest thing is that we have made real, an actual illusion. That is, that when we camp out, we think that the Sun rises in the east, or if we are at night, it looks as though the stars come up from the east and move over us and go down in the west. When actually, we are turning the opposite, we are on the Earth that's turning in the opposite way, but we don't feel that. So in the "North-Space", I've removed all reference to the horizon. So your field of reference are the stars. So what happens is that you feel yourself to be moving, almost tipping."

-- James Turrell on his Roden Crater Project

He references a model of his creation and points to a particular chair at a key axial opening in the bowl shaped roof of the model and continues, "So, if you're sitting back here, back in this seat here, you will actually see the rotation of the Earth and you can feel that."


It is one of life's bitterest truths that bedtime so often arrives just when things are really getting interesting.
--Lemony Snicket
"Come quickly, I am tasting stars!"
-- Dom Perignon (1638 - 1715), at the moment of his discovery of champagne

"The stars are out," Zoe said.

She was right. There were millions of them, with no city lights to turn the sky orange.

"Amazing," Bianca said. "I've never actually seen the Milky Way."

"This is nothing," Zoe said. "In the old days, there were more. Whole constellations have disappeared because of human light pollution."

"You talk like you're not human," I said.

Zoe raised an eyebrow. "I am a Hunter. I care what happens to the wild places of the world. Can the same be said for thee?"

From Rick Riordan's The Titan's Curse, Book three of his Percy Jackson & The Olympians series.

One summer night, out on a flat headland, all but surrounded by the waters of the bay, the horizons were remote and distant rims on the edge of space. Millions of stars blazed in darkness, and on the far shore a few lights burned in cottages. Otherwise there was no reminder of human life. My companion and I were alone with the stars: the misty river of the Milky Way flowing across the sky, the patterns of the constellations standing out bright and clear, a blazing planet low on the horizon. It occurred to me that if this were a sight that could be seen only once in a century, this little headland would be thronged with spectators. But it can be see many scores of nights in any year, and so the lights burned in the cottages and the inhabitants probably gave not a thought to the beauty overhead; and because they could see it almost any night, perhaps they never will.

--Rachel Carson (1907 - 1964), author of Silent Spring and who is credited with advancing the global environmental movement.

"We had the sky up there, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss whether they was made or just happened."
-- Mark Twain
"We walk up the beach under the stars. And when we are tired of walking, we lie flat on the sand under a bowl of stars."
-- Anne Morrow Lindbergh (1906 - 2001)
"The treasures hidden in the heavens are so rich that the human mind shall never be lacking in fresh nourishment."
-- Johannes Kepler (1571 - 1630)

Dr. Timothy Ferris, author of 10 best-selling books on astronomy and the cosmos, and featured scientist/writer in the PBS special, "The Creation of the Universe", has said:

"The loss of the night sky is most troubling for children. Whole generations of kids in cities and suburbs are growing up seldom if ever having seen the Milky Way and what a sky full of thousands of stars looks like.

"People often describe to me in glowing terms their experience in viewing the night time sky as if they'd seen something extraordinarily exotic... something akin to observing Victoria Falls or the South Pole. And I'm afraid that's the case for many people...that they can count on the fingers of one hand the times they've seen a good night's sky."

"All human cultures no matter how primitive have felt it important to tell stories about the stars and about the nature and the origin of the universe as a whole. So there's something about astronomy that is deeply engrained in human culture, going as far back as music, dance and poetry."

What about just being content with viewing the night sky with a planetarium?

Dr. Ferris says, "you can replace the real with the artificial in many instance, but what kind of a world would you have? Nothing can match the grandeur, the wonderment that comes from starring up into THE real star filled canopy above and realizing that you are a part of that creation."

In my own opinion, an artificial view of the night sky is kind of like watching a fireworks demonstration on the television. Yes you may see all of the same thing as reality, but it is not at all like being there when the fireworks soar and boom overhead. Or likewise, you can see pictures of the Grand Canyon in Arizonia on a postcard or television, but you do not truly comprehend their enormous size unless you actually go and visit it. -- EPV

"Stars, in your multitude, scarce to be counted, filling the darkness with order and light."
-- Javert, Les Miserables (The Musical)
"Sirius, the brightest star in the heavens.... My grandfather would say we're part of something incredibly wonderful - more marvelous than we imagine. My grandfather would say we ought to go out and look at it once in a while so we don't lose our place in it."
-- Robert Fulghum

Dr. Brian Greene, Columbia University physicist, who wrote "The Elegant Universe" is one of the most articulate spokespersons for the Superstring Theory of the Cosmos, has said that:

"I have long thought that anyone who does not regularly --or ever-- gaze up and see the wonder and glory of a dark night sky filled with countless stars loses a sense of their fundamental connectedness to the universe. And as the astounding vastness of the universe becomes obscured, there is a throwback to a vision of a universe that essentially amounts to earth, or one's country, or state or city. Perspective becomes myopic. But a clear night sky and a little instruction allows anyone to soar in mind and imagination to the farthest reaches of an enormous universe in which we are but a speck. And there is nothing more exhilarating and humbling than that."

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are.
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.

When the blazing sun is gone,
When he nothing shines upon,
Then you show your little light,
Twinkle, twinkle, all the night.

Then the traveller in the dark,
Thanks you for your tiny spark,
He could not see which way to go,
If you did not twinkle so.

In the dark blue sky you keep,
And often through my curtains peep,
For you never shut your eye,
'Till the sun is in the sky.

As your bright and tiny spark,
Lights the traveller in the dark.
Though I know not what you are,
Twinkle, twinkle, little star.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star.
How I wonder what you are.
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star.
How I wonder what you are.
How I wonder what you are.

The English lyrics were first written as a poem by Jane Taylor (1783 - 1824) and published with the title "The Star" in Rhymes for the Nursery by Jane and her sister Ann Taylor (1782 - 1866) in London in 1806.

Department of Physics
Florida Atlantic University
Boca Raton, Florida
E-mail: evandern at fau dot edu
Phone: 561 297 STAR (7827)

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