When Astronomer Johannes Kepler Wrote the First Work of Science Fiction, The Dream (1609)

The point at which we date the birth of any genre is apt to shift depending on how we define it. When did science fiction begin? Many cite early masters of the form like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells as its progenitors. Others reach back to Mary Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein as the genesis of the form. Some few know The Blazing World, a 1666 work of fiction by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, who called her book a “hermaphroditic text.” According to the judgment of such experts as Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan, sci-fi began even earlier, with a novel called Somnium (“The Dream”), written by none other than German astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler. Maria Popova explains at Brain Pickings:

In 1609, Johannes Kepler finished the first work of genuine science fiction — that is, imaginative storytelling in which sensical science is a major plot device. Somnium, or The Dream, is the fictional account of a young astronomer who voyages to the Moon. Rich in both scientific ingenuity and symbolic play, it is at once a masterwork of the literary imagination and an invaluable scientific document, all the more impressive for the fact that it was written before Galileo pointed the first spyglass at the sky and before Kepler himself had ever looked through a telescope.

The work was not published until 1634, four years after Kepler’s death, by his son Ludwig, though “it had been Kepler’s intent to personally supervise the publication of his manuscript,” writes Gale E. Christianson. His final, posthumous work began as a dissertation in 1593 that addressed the question Copernicus asked years earlier: “How would the phenomena occurring in the heavens appear to an observer stationed on the moon?” Kepler had first come “under the thrall of the heliocentric model,” Popova writes, “as a student at the Lutheran University of Tübingen half a century after Copernicus published his theory.”

Kepler’s thesis was “promptly vetoed” by his professors, but he continued to work on the ideas, and corresponded with Galileo 30 years before the Italian astronomer defended his own heliocentric theory. “Sixteen years later and far from Tübingen, he completed an expanded version,” says Andrew Boyd in the introduction to a radio program about the book. “Recast in a dreamlike framework, Kepler felt free to probe ideas about the moon that he otherwise couldn’t.” Not content with cold abstraction, Kepler imagined space travel, of a kind, and peopled his moon with aliens.

And what an imagination! Inhabitants weren’t mere recreations of terrestrial life, but entirely new forms of life adapted to lunar extremes. Large. Tough-skinned. They evoked visions of dinosaurs. Some used boats, implying not just life but intelligent, non-human life. Imagine how shocking that must have been at the time.

Even more shocking to authorities were the means Kepler used in his text to reveal knowledge about the heavens and travel to the moon: beings he called “daemons” (a Latin word for benign nature spirits before Christianity hijacked the term), who communicated first with the hero’s mother, a witch practiced in casting spells.

The similarities between Kepler’s protagonist, Duracotus, and Kepler himself (such as a period of study under Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe) led the church to suspect the book was thinly veiled autobiographical occultism. Rumors circulated, and Kepler’s mother was arrested for witchcraft and subjected to territio verbalis (detailed descriptions of the tortures that awaited her, along with presentations of the various devices).  It took Kepler five years to free her and prevent her execution.

Kepler’s story is tragic in many ways, for the losses he suffered throughout his life, including his son and his first wife to smallpox. But his perseverance left behind one of the most fascinating works of early science fiction—published hundreds of years before the genre is supposed to have begun. Despite the fantastical nature of his work, “he really believed,” says Sagan in the short clip from Cosmos above, “that one day human beings would launch celestial ships with sails adapted to the breezes of heaven, filled with explorers who, he said, would not fear the vastness of space.”

Astronomy had little connection with the material world in the early 17th century. “With Kepler came the idea that a physical force moves the planets in their orbits,” as well as an imaginative way to explore scientific ideas no one would be able to verify for decades, or even centuries. Hear Somnium read at the top of the post and learn more about Kepler’s fascinating life and achievements at Brain Pickings.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

3D Interactive Globes Now Online: Spin Through an Archive of Globes from the 17th and 18th Century

Willem Janszoon Blaeu Celestial Globe 1602

No matter how accustomed we've grown over the centuries to flat maps of the world, they can never be perfectly accurate. Strictly speaking, no map can perfectly capture the territory it describes (an impossibility memorably fictionalized by Jorge Luis Borges in "On Exactitude in Science"), but there's a reason we also call the Earth "the globe": only a globe can represent not just the planet's true shape, but the true shape of the land masses on which we live. This is not to say that globes have always been accurate. Like the history of mapmaking, the history of globe-making is one of educated (or uneducated) guesses, free mixture of fact and legend, and labels like "terra incognita" or "here be dragons." You can see that for yourself in the British Library's new online historic globe archive — and not just through flat photographs and scans.

"The archive presents 3D models of 11 globes — a subset of the library’s historic maps collection — that can be rotated and zoomed into for greater detail at every angle," writes Hyperallergic's Sarah Rose Sharp. She points to one in particular, "stunning 1602 celestial globe by Dutch cartographer Willem Janszoon Blaeu, first produced in 1602. In addition to representing the constellations as their fantastic and mythological namesakes, it identifies a nova in the constellation of Cygnus which Blaeu had personally observed in 1600."




The British Library's digital collection boasts several such "celestial globes," which chart the sky rather than the Earth. However few of us have ever turned a celestial globe by hand, we can now do it virtually. If 1602 seems a bit too vintage, give a digital spin to the others from 1700, 1728, and 1783.

Back on land, these globes feature not just "fantastic creatures," Sharp writes, but "charming archaic conceptions of the oceans — the 'Atalantick Ocean' in the 1730 Richard Cushee terrestrial globe, or the 'Ethipoic Ocean' in the 1783 terrestrial globe by G. Wright and W. Bardin." In Chushee, Wright and Bardin's times, few globe-users, or indeed globe-makers, would have had the chance to see much of those vast bodies of water for themselves. Of course, with the current state of pandemic lockdown in so many countries, few of us are taking transoceanic journeys even today. If you're dreaming about the rest of the world, spend some time with the British Library's 3D-modeled globes on Sketchfab — where you'll also find the Rosetta Stone and Bust of Nefertiti among other artifacts previously featured here on Open Culture — and get your hands on an idea of how humanity imagined it in centuries past.

via Hyperallergic

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

The Size of Asteroids Compared to New York City

The smallest asteroid measures 4.1 meters in diameter; the largest 939 kilometers, or 580 miles. Created by 3D animator Alvaro Gracia Montoya, the data on asteroid sizes was all gleaned from Wikipedia...

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via Laughing Squid

An Illustrated Map of Every Known Object in Space: Asteroids, Dwarf Planets, Black Holes & Much More

Name all the things in space in 20 minutes. Impossible, you say? Well, if there’s anyone who might come close to summarizing the contents of the universe in less than half an hour, with the aid of a handy infographic map also available as a poster, it's physicist Dominic Walliman, who has explored other vast scientific regions in condensed, yet comprehensive maps on physics, mathematics, chemistry, biology, and computer science.

These are all academic disciplines with more or less defined boundaries. But space? It’s potentially endless, a point Walliman grants up front. Space is “infinitely big and there are an infinite number of things in it," he says. However, these things can still be named and categorized, since “there are not an infinite number of different kinds of things.” We begin at home, so to speak, with the Earth, our Sun, the solar system (and a dog), and the planets: terrestrial, gas, and ice giant.




Asteroids, meteors, comets, dwarf planets, moons, the Kuyper Belt, Dort Cloud, and heliosphere, cosmic dust, black holes…. We’re only two minutes in and that’s a lot of things already—but it’s also a lot of kinds of things, and those kinds repeat over and over. The supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way may be a type representing a whole class of things “at the center of every galaxy."

The universe might contain an infinite number of stars—or a number so large it might as well be infinite. But that doesn’t mean we can’t extrapolate from the comparatively tiny number we’re able to observe as representative of general star behavior: from the “main sequence stars”—Red, Orange, and Yellow Dwarves (like our sun)—to blue giants to variable stars, which pulsate and change in size and brightness.

Massive Red Giants explode into nebulae at the end of their 100 million to 2 billion year lives. They also, along with Red and Orange Dwarf stars, leave behind a core known as a White Dwarf, which will become a Black Dwarf, which does not exist yet because the universe it not old enough to have produced any. “White dwarves,” Walliman says, “will be the fate of 97% of the stars in the universe." The number of kinds of stars expands, we get into the different shapes galaxies can take, and learn about cosmic radiation and “mysteries.”

This project does not have the scope to include explanations of how we know about these many kinds of space objects, but Walliman does an excellent job of turning what may be the biggest picture imaginable into a thumbnail—or poster-sized (purchase here, download here)—outline of the universe. We cannot ask more from a twenty-minute video promising to name “Every Kind of Thing in Space.”

See other science-defining video maps, all written, researched, animated, edited, and scored by Walliman, at the links below.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Stephen Hawking’s Black Hole Paradox Explained in Animation

Many of us have heard of Stephen Hawking but know him only as a symbol of a powerful mind dedicated for a lifetime to the thorniest problems in astrophysics. Even more of us have heard of black holes but know of them only as those dangerous things in sci-fi movies that suck in spaceships. But if we gain an understanding of Hawking's work on black holes, however basic, we gain a much clearer view of both entities and what they mean to the human endeavor of grasping the workings of reality. What it all has to do with "one of the biggest paradoxes in the universe," and why that paradox "threatens to unravel modern science," provide the subject matter for the animated TED-Ed lesson above.

In order to explain what's called the "Black Hole Information Paradox," astrophysicist Fabio Pacucci must first explain "information," which in this usage constitutes every part of the reality in which we live. "Typically, the information we talk about is visible to the naked eye," he says. "This kind of information tells us that an apple is red, round, and shiny." But what physicists care about is "quantum information," which "refers to the quantum properties of all the particles that make up that apple, such as their position, velocity and spin." The particles that make up every object of the universe have "unique quantum properties," and the laws of physics as currently understood hold that "the total amount of quantum information in the universe must be conserved."




Smash the apple into sauce, in other words, and you don't create or destroy any quantum information, you just move it around. But in the parts of spacetime with gravity so strong that nothing can escape them, better known as black holes, that particular law of physics may not apply. "When an apple enters a black hole, it seems as though it leaves the universe, and all its quantum information becomes irretrievably lost," says Pacucci. "However, this doesn’t immediately break the laws of physics. The information is out of sight, but it might still exist within the black hole’s mysterious void."

Then we have Hawking Radiation, the eponymous genius' contribution to the study of black holes, which shows that "black holes are gradually evaporating," losing mass over "incredibly long periods of time" in such a way that suggests that "a black hole and all the quantum information it contains could be completely erased" in the process. What might go into the black hole as an apple's information doesn't come out looking like an apple's information. Quantum information seems to be destroyed by black holes, yet everything else about quantum information tells us it can't be destroyed: like any paradox, or contradiction between two known or probable truths, "the destruction of information would force us to rewrite some of our most fundamental scientific paradigms."

But for a scientist in the Hawking mold, this difficulty just makes the chase for knowledge more interesting. Pacucci cites a few hypotheses: that "information actually is encoded in the escaping radiation, in some way we can’t yet understand," that "the paradox is just a misunderstanding of how general relativity and quantum field theory interact, that "a solution to this and many other paradoxes will come naturally with a 'unified theory of everything,'" and most boldly that, because "the 2D surface of an event horizon" — the inescapable edge of a black hole — "can store quantum information," the boundary of the observable universe "is also a 2D surface encoded with information about real, 3D objects," implying that "reality as we know it is just a holographic projection of that information." Big if true, as they say, but as Hawking seems to have known, the truth about our reality is surely bigger than any of us can yet imagine.

via Brain Pickings

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Very First Picture of the Far Side of the Moon, Taken 60 Years Ago

Sixty years ago, mankind got its very first glimpse of the far side of the Moon, so called because it faces away from the Earth. (And as astronomers like Neil DeGrasse Tyson have long taken pains to point out to Pink Floyd fans, it isn't "dark.") Taken by the Soviet Union, that first photo may not look like much today, especially compared to the high-resolution color images sent back from the surface itself by China's Chang’e-4 probe earlier this year. But with the technology of the late 1950s, even the technology commanded by the Soviets' then-world-beating space program, the fact that it was taken at all seems not far short of miraculous. How did they do it?

"This photograph was taken by the Soviet spacecraft Luna 3, which was launched a month after the Luna 2 spacecraft became the first man-made object to impact on the surface of the Moon," explains astronomer Kevin Hainline in a recent Twitter thread. "Luna 2 followed Luna 1, the first spacecraft to escape a geosynchronous Earth orbit." Luna 3 was designed to take photographs of the Moon, hardly an uncomplicated prospect: "To take pictures you have to be stable on three-axes. You have to take the photographs remotely. AND you have to somehow transfer those pictures back to Earth." The first three-axis stabilized spacecraft ever sent on a mission, Luna 3 "had to use a little photocell to orient towards the Moon so that now, while stabilized, it could take the pictures. Which it did. On PHOTOGRAPHIC FILM."




Even those of us who took pictures on film for decades have started to take for granted the convenience of digital photography. But think back to all the hassle of traditional photography, then imagine making a robot carry them out in space. Once taken Luna 3's photos "were then moved to a little CHEMICAL PLANT to DEVELOP AND DRY THEM." (In other words, "Luna 3 had a little 1 Hour Photo inside.") Then they continued into "a device that shone a cathode ray tube, like in an older TV, through them, towards a device that recorded the brightness and converted this to an electrical signal." You can read about what happened then in more detail at Damn Interesting, where Alan Bellows describes how the spacecraft sent "the lightness and darkness information line-by-line via frequency-modulated analog signal — in essence, a fax sent over radio."

Soviet Scientists could thus "retrieve one photographic frame every 30 minutes or so. Due to the distance and weak signal, the first images received contained nothing but static. In subsequent attempts in the following few days, an indistinct, blotchy white disc began to resolve on the thermal paper printouts at Soviet listening stations." As Luna 3's photos became clearer, they revealed, as Hainline puts it, that "the backside of the moon was SO WEIRD AND DIFFERENT" — covered in the craters, for example, which have become its visual signature. For a modern-day equivalent to this achievement, we might look not just to Chang’e-4 but to the image of a black hole captured by the Event Horizon Telescope this past April — the one that led to an abundance of articles like "In Defense of the Blurry Black Hole Photo" and "We Need to Admit That the Black Hole Photo Isn’t Very Good." Astrophotography has come a long way, but at least back in 1959 it didn't produce quite so many takes.

via Kottke

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

NASA Enlists Andy Warhol, Annie Leibovitz, Norman Rockwell & 350 Other Artists to Visually Document America’s Space Program

It’s hard to imagine that the space-crazed general public needed any help getting worked up about astronauts and NASA in the early 60s.

Perhaps the wild popularity of space-related imagery is in part what motivated NASA administrator James Webb to create the NASA Art Program in 1962.

Although the program's handpicked artists weren’t edited or censored in any way, they were briefed on how NASA hoped to be represented, and the emotions their creations were meant capture—the excitement and uncertainty of exploring these frontiers.

NASA was also careful to collect everything the artists produced while participating in the program, from sketches to finished work.




In turn, they received unprecedented access to launch sites, key personnel, and major events such as Project Mercury and the Apollo 11 Mission.

Over 350 artists, including Andy Warhol, Norman Rockwell, and Laurie Anderson, have brought their unique sensibilities to the project. (Find NASA-inspired art by Warhol and Rockwell above.)

(And hey, no shame if you mistakenly assumed Warhol’s 1987 Moonwalk 1 was created as a promo for MTV…)

Jamie Wyeth’s 1964 watercolor Gemini Launch Pad includes a humble bicycle, the means by which technicians traveled back and forth from the launch pad to the concrete-reinforced blockhouse where they worked.

Photographer Annie Leibovitz offers two views of NASA’s first female pilot and commander, Eileen Collins—with and without helmet.

Postage stamp designer, Paul Calle, one of the inaugural group of participating artists, produced a stamp commemorating the Gemini 4 space capsule in celebration of NASA's 9th anniversary. When the Apollo 11 astronauts suited up prior to blast off on July 16, 1969, Calle was the only artist present. His quickly rendered felt tip marker sketches lend a backstage element to the heroic iconography surrounding astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins. One of the items they carried with them on their journey was the engraved printing plate of Calle’s 1967 commemorative stamp. They hand-canceled a proof aboard the flight, on the assumption that post offices might be hard to come by on the moon.

More recently, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has enlisted a team of nine artists, designers, and illustrators to collaborate on 14 posters, a visual throwback to the ones the WPA created between 1938 and 1941 to spark public interest in the National Parks. You can see the results at the Exoplanet Travel Bureau.

View an album of 25 historic works from NASA’s Art Program here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, September 9 for another season of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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