Jan 3 2012: Eighteen Plates and a Cryptogram from The Story of the Heavens by Robert Stawell Ball (Cassell, 1893)

The Story of the Heavens by Robert Stawell Ball (Cassell, 1893) is a summary of the field of astronomical knowledge at the time of its first publication and much it contains on subjects like gravity, the extent of the solar system and the life cycles of stars has been superseded and changed by later research, some of which was added by Ball himself to subsequent editions, the last, so far as I can tell, being a popular paperback version published around 1926. Probably the most interesting parts of the book today are its few but very beautifully produced plates, some of which seem extraordinary in their detail: it would be the 1970s before photographs of lunar craters and landscapes again achieved the levels of precision found in these engravings after Nasmyth, and such things as solar prominences and sun-spots are treated with a quasi-abstract style that goes beyond pure scientific information. The Martian map after Schiaparelli, with its notorious ‘canals’, seems to anticipate the compositions of Jackson Pollock and Roberto Matta seventy years later, and a tiny fragment of what looks suspiciously like concrete poetry appears in Ball’s discussion of a 1656 cryptogram made by Christiaan Huyghens as an attempt to express his theories about the nature of Saturn’s rings: I wonder if the late Scottish poet Edwin Morgan ever saw this? It seems like exactly the kind of thing he’d have loved and made use of in his own work…

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