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A physicist explores the stories of discovery behind iconic diagrams, drawings, and photos.

Key Images in the History of Science
by John D. Barrow, W. W. Norton 2008, 544 pages

A picture’s worth a thousand words, the saying goes; and increasingly, almost relentlessly, the contemporary world seems to champion the visual. In classrooms and boardrooms, it is often PowerPoint and YouTube as much as the words of a speaker that capture attention. Consider the black-and-white images of post-bomb Hiroshima, film clips of New York’s collapsing Twin Towers on 9/11, and Al Gore’s outsized, soaring graph of global carbon emissions, as seen in his book and film An Inconvenient Truth. Our access to pictures grows ever easier; indeed, a few simple clicks on Google produce thousands of illustrations, photographs, and diagrams. Yet the story behind those images is sometimes forgotten or overlooked.

In Cosmic Imagery, University of Cambridge physicist and mathematician John D. Barrow sets out to refresh the memory and appreciation of notable scientific images from history. Ranging from Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man to Gerardus Mercator’s 1569 map of the world, the first microscopic photograph of a snowflake, and the Hubble Deep Field depiction of the universe, these are images that have made “a lasting and vivid contribution to our scientific understanding.” In this book, all are displayed in large, full-color reproductions that capture their beauty, particularly those meticulous hand drawings that predate computer-aided design software.

Barrows weaves his words around these pictures in brief yet eloquent essays. And as he does so, his lyrical prose reminds us of the equal importance of the back story and “thousand words.” As the author himself notes, Cosmic Imagery is far from being “a picture book.” Instead, it is one that preserves the complex stories of images that have supported, enriched, and sometimes helped advance scientific inquiry.

Some of these images are now widely familiar, like the first photographs of the surface of the moon and the Earth as taken from space, both courtesy of the Apollo 8 and Apollo 11 missions. Barrow’s accompanying essay reminds us of the tremendous excitement generated by these breathtaking images, which provided not only new views but new understanding of our universe. He also makes the case that seeing the Earth isolated in the darkness of space prompted much greater appreciation of our home planet and its delicate eco-systems. It was an awareness that gave support to the nascent environmental movement started by Rachel Carson and others, writes Barrows. Indeed, the Apollo mission photographs of the “big blue marble,” some of the most widely disseminated of all images today, are often employed by conservation groups.

As well as exploring the history and ingenuity of these images, Barrow’s essays raise thought-provoking considerations, such as why, in the late 1970s, mathematicians debated so heatedly whether computers should be used in mathematical proofs. Was a proof legitimate if it was so extensive it couldn’t be checked by humans? Some opponents drew parallels with drug-assisted world records in sports. “With time, this storm has abated,” Barrow observes, “and the problems raised have been dissolved, if not resolved.” In other essays, the author provides intriguing background, informing us, for example, how the now-iconic logic diagrams of Cambridge tutor John Venn were prefigured 20 years earlier by the similar diagrams of an Oxford tutor, one Charles Dodgson — known to most as Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland.

Several essays illuminate the connection between a scientific image and the artistic rendering it inspired — or vice versa. As the son of an engineer, artist M.C. Escher studied architecture before turning to fantastic drawings that illustrate such mathematical principles as the Möbius strip (first produced by August Möbius, 1858). Escher in turn inspired the creation by mathematician Roger Penrose of the “impossible triangle,” a two-dimensional rendering of a tri-bar whose beams appear to meet at right angles. In another essay, Barrow speculates that Vincent Van Gogh’s famous painting Starry Night was surely based on the 1845 scientific drawings of English astronomer the Earl of Rosse, who depicted what he had observed of the Whirlpool Galaxy through his massive telescope. “No one could ever have seen the spiral pattern of stars in a galaxy unless they had looked through Rosse’s telescope or seen his drawings,” Barrow comments. Studying Van Gogh’s painting alongside Rosse’s original drawing, we appreciate the science that informed the artist’s flight of fancy.

As might be expected of an astrophysicist, Barrow focuses largely on physical cosmology in presenting these 190 scientific images. Yet there is something for every reader in his engaging, contemplative essays. What may be less expected is Barrow’s flair for language. An author of numerous academic articles and books, he has also produced 17 popular science books and an award-winning play that explores the perplexities of infinity. While Cosmic Imagery highlights pictures, it is the poetry of John Barrow’s words that makes this book a welcome addition under the Christmas tree or atop the office desk.

Robin Tatu is a senior editor of Prism.




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