Visualising the Universe / Slideshow

The challenge of visualising the Universe lies in the fact that our understanding of it is still so limited. TiP explores why this is such a difficult task, and what prior attempts and approaches have been taken to depict the Universe as we know it.

The inherent problem in trying to represent the Universe visually is that there is still so much we don’t know about the subject we are trying to depict. With so many opportunities for interpretation, the variety of images that represent the heavens gives rise to the idea that what we are trying to depict is not an object or a thing, but a continually evolving concept which takes on different meanings for different contexts.

The first obstacle in trying to depict a concept like the Universe is that we do not know where it ends – physicists declare it is infinite, but how can it be possible to create an image of something that goes on forever? French artist Serge Salat attempted to capture the essence of infinity with his work Beyond Infinity in 2011, which made use of opposing mirrors and fractal shapes to play with visitors’ perception of space. Infinity, however, is only one aspect of the Universe – to focus on the vastness of the cosmos is to trivialise the galaxies, black holes, nebulae and other stellar debris that it contains.

Of course, the mathematical curiosity that is infinity is probably not what most non-scientists think of when imagining what the universe looks like. The diagram of our own galaxy which so often appears in textbooks – a large and fiery sun with nine planets of varying sizes radiating out in a neat line – is an attempt to render our astronomical home comprehensible in a way which focuses on the physical truth of the existence of these objects and the mechanical truth of their position and movement. Taking a chunk of the Universe as small as the Milky Way and depicting it so literally is a way of making it both relevant and digestible, but in this case the enormity of space suffers in favour of the solid entities we deem important. Artist Mishka Henna has attempted to redress the balance between space and solid with his collection of books Astronomical, which over 12 volumes illustrates a scale version of our galaxy, but his work only goes to highlight how constrained illustrators usually are in their efforts to get the Universe on a page.

An alternative to the approach of making the Universe appear as a collection of hard facts is to come at the topic subjectively. Our own experience and reaction to the Universe we live in is just as valid an artistic response as that of clinical diagrams – our best stories are always those we have experienced first-hand. Representing what we see or feel when we look up at the stars at night is about as direct a way of visualising the Universe as possible, and is of course the oldest form of astronomical art we have. In the most ancient astronomy, the Universe was what could be seen just by looking up, which meant it differed greatly depending on where you were in the world. It also seems to have been represented for largely practical reasons, as a reminder of the year’s cycle. In terms of interacting with and making use of our astronomic environment, our own subjective perspective is undoubtedly going to prove the most useful, though once again the lack of other aspects means that we fail to gain the whole picture.

It therefore seems to appear that visualising the Universe is not something which can be done in its entirety. To represent one aspect means leaving out another, and our representations of the heavens fall victim to the same problems of traditional cartography in that to make an effective image we need to know what the image is going to be used for. If we want an understanding of the scale of the Universe, we will pick infinity as the subject to interpret; if we want a basic knowledge of the astronomical ‘landmarks’ we will use a scientific diagram. The Universe is a concept which we continue to break down in order to make it comprehensible within the context we are representing it; a Universe of infinite possibility ultimately means a universe with infinite ways of being visualised.

By Emma Craig
'Beyond Infinity' installation, Serge Salat