How We’ve ‘Morphed’ From “Starry Night” to Planck’s View of the BICEP2 Field

From the vantage point of a window in an insane asylum, Vincent van Gogh painted one of the most noted and valued artistic works in human history. It was the summer of 1889. With his post-impressionist paint strokes, Starry Night depicts a night sky before sunrise that undulates, flows and is never settled. Scientific discoveries are revealing a Cosmos with such characteristics.

Since Vincent’s time, artists and scientists have taken their respective paths to convey and understand the natural world. The latest released images taken by the European Planck Space Telescope reveals new exquisite details of our Universe that begin to touch upon the paint strokes of the great master and at the same time looks back nearly to the beginning of time. Since Van Gogh – the passage of 125 years – scientists have constructed a progressively intricate and incredible description of the Universe.

New images returned by the Planck telescope (right) begin to rival the complexity and beauty of a great artists imagination – Starry Night.A visulization of the Planck data represents the interaction of interstellar dust with the galactic magnetic field. Color defines the intensity of dust emisions and the measurements of polarized light reveals the direction of the magnetic field lines. (Credits: Vincent Van Gogh, ESA)

The path from Van Gogh to the Planck Telescope imagery is indirect, an abstraction akin to the impressionism of van Gogh’s era. Impressionists in the 1800s showed us that the human mind could interpret and imagine the world beyond the limitations of our five senses. Furthermore, optics since the time of Galileo had begun to extend the capability of our senses.

A photograph of James Clerk Maxwell and a self-portrait of Vincent van Gogh. Maxwell’s equations and impressionism in the fine arts in the 19th Century sparked an enhanced perception, expression and abstraction of the World and began a trek of knowledge and technology into the modern era. (Credit: National Gallery of Art, Public Domain)

Mathematics is perhaps the greatest form of abstraction of our vision of the World, the Cosmos. The path of science from the era of van Gogh began with his contemporary, James Clerk Maxwell who owes inspiration from the experimentalist Michael Faraday. The Maxwell equations mathematically define the nature of electricity and magnetism. Since Maxwell, electricity, magnetism and light have been intertwined. His equations are now a derivative of a more universal equation – the Standard Model of the Universe. The accompanying Universe Today article by Ramin Skibba describes in more detail the new findings by Planck Mission scientists and its impact on the Standard Model.

The work of Maxwell and experimentalists such as Faraday, Michelson and Morley built an overwhelming body of knowledge upon which Albert Einstein was able to write his papers of 1905, his miracle year (Annus mirabilis). His theories of the Universe have been interpreted, verified time and again and lead directly to the Universe studied by scientists employing the Planck Telescope.

The first Solvay Conference in 1911 was organized by Max Planck and Hendrik Lorentz. Planck is standing, second from left. The first Solvay, by invitation only, included most of the greatest scientists of the early 20th Century. While Planck is known for his work on quanta, the groundwork for quantum theory – the Universe in minutiae , the Planck telescope is surveying the Universe in the large. Physicists are closer to unifying the nature of the two extremes. Insets – Planck (1933, 1901).

In 1908, the German physicist Max Planck, for whom the ESA telescope is named, recognized the importance of Einstein’s work and finally invited him to Berlin and away from the obscurity of a patent office in Bern, Switzerland.

As Einstein spent a decade to complete his greatest work, the General Theory of Relativity, astronomers began to apply more powerful tools to their trade. Edwin Hubble, born in the year van Gogh painted Starry Night, began to observe the night sky with the most powerful telescope in the World, the Mt Wilson 100 inch Hooker Telescope. In the 1920s, Hubble discovered that the Milky Way was not the whole Universe but rather an island universe, one amongst billions of galaxies. His observations revealed that the Milky Way was a spiral galaxy of a form similar to neighboring galaxies, for example, M31, the Andromeda Galaxy.

Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein were human wrecking balls in their respective professions. What began with Faraday and Maxwell, van Gogh and Gaugin were taken to new heights. We are encapsulated in the technology derived from these masters but are able to break free of the confinement technology can impose through the expression and art of Picasso and his contemporaries.

Einstein’s equations and Picasso’s abstraction created another rush of discovery and expressionism that propel us for another 50 years. Their influence continues to impact our lives today.

The Andromeda Galaxy, M31, the nearest spiral galaxy to the Milky Way, several times the angular size of the Moon. First photographed by Isaac Roberts, 1899 (inset), spirals are a function of gravity and the propagation of shock waves, across the expanses of such galaxies are electromagnetic fields such as reported by Planck mission scientists.

Telescopes of Hubble’s era reached their peak with the Palomar 200 inch telescope, four times the light gathering power of Mount Wilson’s. Astronomy had to await the development of modern electronics. Improvements in photographic techniques would pale in comparison to what was to come.

The development of electronics was accelerated by the pressures placed upon opposing forces during World War II. Karl Jansky developed radio astronomy in the 1930s which benefited from research that followed during the war years. Jansky detected the radio signature of the Milky Way. As Maxwell and others imagined, astronomy began to expand beyond just visible light – into the infrared and radio waves. Discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) in 1964 by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson is arguably the greatest discovery  from observations in the radio wave (and microwave) region of the electromagnetic spectrum.

From 1937 to the present day, radio astronomy has been an ever refining merger of electronics and optics. Karl Jansky’s first radio telescope, 1937 (inset) and the great ALMA array now in operation studying the Universe in the microwave region of the electromagnetic spectrum. (Credits: ESO)

Analog electronics could augment photographic studies. Vacuum tubes led to photo-multiplier tubes that could count photons and measure more accurately the dynamics of stars and the spectral imagery of planets, nebulas and whole galaxies. Then in the 1947, three physicists at Bell Labs , John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley created the transistor that continues to transform the World today.

For astronomy and our image of the Universe, it meant more acute imagery of the Universe and imagery spanning across the whole electromagnetic spectrum. Infrared Astronomy developed slowly beginning in the 1800s but it was solid state electronics in the 1960s when it came of age. Microwave or Millimeter Radio Astronomy required a marriage of radio astronomy and solid state electronics. The first practical millimeter wave telescope began operations in 1980 at Kitt Peak Observatory.

An early work of Picasso (center), the work at Bell Labs of John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley and the mobile art of Alexander Calder. As artists attempt to balance color and shape, the Bell Lab engineers balanced electrons essentially on the head of a pin, across junctions to create the first transistor.

With further improvements in solid state electronics and development of extremely accurate timing devices and development of low-temperature solid state electronics, astronomy has reached the present day. With modern rocketry, sensitive devices such as the Hubble and Planck Space Telescopes have been lofted into orbit and above the opaque atmosphere surrounding the Earth.

In 1964, the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) was discovered. In the early 1990s, the COBE space telescope returned even more detailed results and now Planck has refined and expanded upon IRAS, COBE and BICEP observations of the CMB. Inset, first light observations of the Planck mission. (Photo Credits: ESA)

Astronomers and physicists now probe the Universe across the whole electromagnetic spectrum generating terabytes of data and abstractions of the raw data allow us to look out into the Universe with effectively a sixth sense, that which is given to us by 21st century technology. What a remarkable coincidence that the observations of our best telescopes peering through hundreds of thousands of light years, even more so, back 13.8 billion years to the beginning of time, reveal images of the Universe that are not unlike the brilliant and beautiful paintings of a human with a mind that gave him no choice but to see the world differently.

Now 125 years later, this sixth sense forces us to see the World in a similar light. Peer up into the sky and you can imagine the planetary systems revolving around nearly every star, swirling clouds of spiral galaxies, one even larger in the sky than our Moon, and waves of magnetic fields everywhere across the starry night.

Consider what the Planck Mission is revealing, questions it is answering and new ones it is raising – It Turns Out Primordial Gravitational Waves Weren’t Found.

Tim Reyes

Contributing writer Tim Reyes is a former NASA software engineer and analyst who has supported development of orbital and lander missions to the planet Mars since 1992. He has an M.S. in Space Plasma Physics from University of Alabama, Huntsville.

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