Cosmos and Culture opens astronomical show at Science Museum

By Ben Miller | 23 July 2009
A picture of a large ornate clock in gold and dark blue

(Above) A scale model of an astrological clock from Hampton Court Palace stars in the Science Museum's latest show

Exhibition: Cosmos and Culture, Science Museum, London, until December 30 2010

Whether through bad luck or lack of ambition, Thomas Harriot's name is not a famous one.

The astronomer's lunar drawings, glimpsed through his Dutch trunke (telescope) in 1609, were never published despite pre-dating the trailblazing visions of Galileo.

By the time he drew Jupiter's moons the following year, Harriot was using Galileo's books as a source, suggesting that any rivalry between the pioneers of early astronomy of the 16th and 17th centuries was minimal – most of them actually read each other's works and corresponded with each other.

A picture of dozens of telescopes in rows in a case

Telescopes from the Museum collection

They take centre stage in Cosmos and Culture, a concise yet object-laden hop across 400 years of stargazing, full of everything from a replica of Galileo's 1610 spyglass to the late 1980s Hubble and the pragmatically-tagged European Extremely Large Telescope, a mirror the size of five of the buses circulating the streets of South Kensington.

That should tell us even more about life on Mars when it launches in 2018, unlike the poor old Jet-X, a vast telescope built for an ambitious astrophysics mission. It was heartbreakingly foiled by the collapse of the Soviet Union after years of hard work by scientists from Britain, Russia and Italy.

A picture of a round flat mirror

A giant light catcher

The University of Leicester has lent it to the museum for the show, and it hangs suspended above the main hall of the building as a sad and impressive monument of what might have been.

The experts behind it generally reflect on their unrequited graft with good grace, and the practitioners behind these plans are usually as full of character as the age-old oak and classic physics they fashion their findings with.

A picture of a large white telescope

A telescope made by James Naysmith in 1848 introduces the exhibition

Patrick Moore says The Story of the Solar System, GF Chambers' 1898 tome which is on display here, shaped his destiny when he was given it by his mother at the age of six, and there's even a first edition of On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres by Copernicus on display - one of only 260 surviving copies.

Explanations of why apples fall to the ground made Newton's 1687 Principia Mathematica a publication of biblical consequences for the world, a comparison the Catholic Church of the time evidently wouldn’t have endorsed.

They tried Galileo for heresy after catching sight of his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in 1632, forcing him to deny his own theories before he died under house imprisonment.

A picture of a telescope suspended sideways in the air

The Jet-X telescope never made it into space

Their attempts to stop the flow of ideas were futile – if there's one thing the touchscreens and crammed cases of this exploration show, it's the global fascination with the galaxy.

Tycho Brahe built a Star Court on the Danish island of Hven as early as 1634, mysterious Japanese Star Maps (the originators of which remain unknown) showed the divisions of the heavens in the 1700s, and Zeiss planetarium projectors trained Luftwaffe navigators in World War II.

The exhibition goes on to show how the High Energy Stereoscopic System studies some of the most violent cosmic explosions from Namibia (the version here is a 30th of the size of the African one), how astrology in China and Tibet is intrinsically entwined with myth and religion, and the way Ancient Greek and Islamic astrolabes followed the path of the sun in a 2D model of the universe you could hold in your hand. Even an iPhone can't beat that.

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