Reflections on the Last Sunspot Drawing at Mount Wilson Observatory

Sunspot image courtesy of Mt. Wilson Observatory.

I first saw the announcement September 14, 2004: “Staff reductions due to a funding shortfall necessitates the cessation of the daily sunspot drawings.” The announcement came from Mt. Wilson Observatory, which, since its founding in December 1904 by George Ellery Hale, was dedicated to solar observation and was to celebrate its centennial on December 4, 2004. At the beginning of the last century, Hale, using a spectroscope, had discovered the magnetic nature of sunspots—areas as big as Earth, often larger—disturbances on the surface of the sun that appear as dark islands and last for days or months. Hale found he could measure the strength and polarity of the spots and by 1917 began an archive of standard 17-inch-diameter solar drawings that mapped each one and recorded its characteristics. The job didn’t demand much in the way of artistic skill: A telescope fitted with a white-light camera had been taking pictures of the sun as early as 1907. The “drawing” was necessary only to save information, but successive teams of observers added finesse and detail, and not a little aesthetic competition to an otherwise routine task. When the program ended last September, there were at least 26,000 drawings archived.

My interest in the daily sunspot drawing was personal. I was in northeast Vermont for the summer, restless, and, only a few months after the Iraq invasion, dispirited. I had brought up some ink and brushes, pencils, sketchpads, and a beautiful notebook of handmade Florentine paper, bound in leather, that a friend had given me a couple of years before. The pages were unmarked. I hadn’t found a subject appropriate to the elegance of the book.

Near the end of July I was taken by an impulse to look closely at the sun, to study it. Maybe it had something to do with the conflict in the Middle East and a need for an accessible image of unity, of innocence, of clarity. I wasn’t interested in the sun as a symbol, via Picasso, Léger, Miró. I was curious about the sun, its surface, and wanted to look at it. Remembering that a friend up the road had an old telescope in her attic, I borrowed it and pointed it at the sun, projecting the image through the eyepiece onto a sheet of paper. There was the bright solar disc against the dark ground of the sky, and on the sun’s surface a textbook-perfect arrangement of dark spots. I took a pencil and filled in the umbra and penumbra of each shape, gently nudging the telescope to keep up with the movement of the Earth. I became hooked on the spots and saw how I could best use my notebook from Italy.

Just a little less than 400 years earlier, in 1609, Galileo obtained a telescope. It had been invented the previous year, either by a child playing in a lens shop, as legend has it, or more probably by the Dutch lens grinder Hans Lipperhey. Galileo studied the night sky, discovering the mountains and craters of the moon, and published his drawings and observations in a popular pamphlet, Sidereus Nuncius, translated by Stillman Drake as The Starry Messenger. In the early morning and late afternoon he looked at the sun, observing and drawing the dark spots he saw on its surface. A sequence of these drawings over a period of time became, in effect, a documentary movie, and the movie would confirm his idea that the spots originated on the sun’s surface, rather than being small planets in orbit around the sun. Observing the movement of the spots across the sun’s surface, he found that it rotated on an axis, completing a full revolution in roughly 27 days. This contradicted the prevailing theory of the time—that the sun and other bodies in the heavens were perfect in substance and symmetrical in motion—and places Galileo at the beginning of our age of empirical observation and scientific discourse. His observations would cause him to support the heliocentric model of the solar system (published by Copernicus in 1543), for which, some years later, the Inquisition would place him under permanent house arrest.

Each clear day I would add an image to my notebook, and during the course of the summer, I learned that an observer at Mt. Wilson Observatory in the mountains outside Pasadena, California, made a daily drawing of the sunspots and posted it on the Internet. When the computer at the local library was available, I would check my drawing, made with a reflecting telescope with a three-and-one-half-inch mirror, against their observations, made at the 150-foot focal length solar tower at the top of a 5,715-foot mountain in the San Gabriel Range. An appreciation of the beauty of a sunspot drawing requires just a little understanding of scale. If you’re drawing the sun, each small mark reflects some astonishing numbers. My notebook was filling with suns, two on a page, made by tracing the rim of a two-and-three-quarter-inch drinking glass. The actual diameter of the sun this represents is between 864,000 and 870,000 miles across, according to which university you consult. You can string 109 Earths across that diameter, which is 93 million miles away from us and contains 99.7 percent or so of the entire mass of our solar system. A small pencil mark 2.5 hundredths of an inch across would represent an event on the sun 7,918 miles wide. Typically a pencil makes a mark bigger than that, and just as typically a sunspot (which is a clump of cooler gas surrounded by a storm of tangled magnetic forces in the sun’s magnetic field that appears darker against the hotter 10,000 degree surface surrounding it) is many times the size of the Earth.

With my borrowed telescope I was essentially dragging 19th-century notions about the way astronomy is done into the 21st century. In fact I wasn’t even doing astronomy; I was simply drawing the sun, much as any artist might draw a model. The image of a solitary observer or group setting up on a hilltop away from city lights, or Galileo inviting groups of poets or nobles to look at the planets with his new device belongs to a science of discovering new objects and calculating the positions in relation to each other, of measuring brightness, distance, speed, and size. The nature of the science changed with the invention of spectroscopy, enabling astrophysicists to determine the material composition and age of stars from an analysis of the light they emitted. George Ellery Hale, the founder of the Mt. Wilson facility, had devised a method of spectroscopy and applied it to the study of our closest star, the sun. The ambitious telescopes built at the beginning of the 20th century, which historian J.D. Bernal likened to “the big bore and range guns of battleships,” did away with science aimed at creating a sense of awe and grandeur to advance education and morality. Science, finally focused on mechanics and physics, would be conducted according to its own needs and not as a branch of the arts and humanities. In 1917 the daily sunspot drawing was an integral part of the science being done at Mt. Wilson and later became a tradition associated with the institution. That tradition ended when funding shortfalls at Mt. Wilson and many other scientific and educational institutions forced a reevaluation of priorities.

The irony in this particular instance is that NASA, which has awarded specific research grants to the observatory in the past, also maintains a program that specifically supports the arts, and that program has been going on since 1962. The agency has commissioned diverse works over the years, from symphonic music to an “art train” that visited 103 U.S. towns. They have also supported artists from Jamie Wyeth to Andy Warhol to dress designer Stephen Sprouse.

The Age of Enlightenment was jump-started by Galileo’s sunspot drawings. In 1993, as part of a celebration of the papal tour of the U.S., the Colorado Historical Museum in Denver mounted an exhibit of works from the collection of the Vatican. Among the things to go on exhibit were some of Galileo’s sunspot drawings, and, as I was in a nearby town that summer, I went to see how those drawings would look in the company of works of art. Irony and sunspots are often in close association: These were drawings that the Vatican owned because Galileo was brought up before the Inquisition, forced to recant, and kept under house arrest until his death. Finally, the drawings weren’t included in the show, so I never have seen them. But the very idea of them made me wonder what kind of art sunspot drawing might be, if it is art at all.

There are certain artists, including Ucello, Cézanne, Eakins, Gris, Albers, Picasso in his synthetic cubist period, and Micheau, whose works functioned as research perhaps as much as art. Where is the line drawn that precisely separates the two? The same impulse is true of thousands of groups across the world whose members hire a model to draw for a couple of hours each day in order to improve their ability to see accurately and/or their drawing technique. Seeing is a thing that is learned, and what one sees is what one has learned how to see. In Galileo’s own day, the Jesuit astronomer Christopher Scheiner observed sunspots at the same time as Galileo, but instead of seeing them as being on the surface of the sun, he thought they were small planets orbiting around it, largely because, in keeping with church doctrine, he knew they could not be on the sun. Perhaps Galileo’s friendship with artists allowed him to trust what his eyes actually saw.

Wondering if observers recorded astronomy with a camera attachment or by making a drawing, I asked Michael O’Gara, president of the New York-area Amateur Astronomers Association, founded in 1927. “Drawing makes you a better observer,” he replied without hesitation, although he was quick to point out that, for an institution like Mt. Wilson, drawing was probably an antiquated source of information. “You put down something, you erase and correct until it’s right,” O’Gara said. “Parts of the sky are relatively lighter or darker, and drawing helps you appreciate distinctions.” To draw anything the eye observes is a significant act of understanding—what Henry Thoreau would describe as “contact.” Not only are we willing to believe what our eyes see, but we are willing to make an effort to get it right. As naturalist Peter Steinhart says in his book The Undressed Art, “Drawing well makes me feel wiser and more intimately connected with the world. That’s a huge reward.” Once you put a mark on paper with the idea of recording something you are looking at, your whole organism strains to complete the work, and do it well. The mark remains neutral, while on either side of it a hand begins to grip an object, a stream flows along its bank, or a mass of cool nuclear particles, trapped in a twisted maze of magnetic force, darkens against the hotter, brighter gas that surrounds it. The sunspot drawing could return to its place. The project director and his staff face one constant problem every day: It’s about money.


Jim Long