In 1993, the satellite Hipparcos yielded a precise and definitive star catalogue comprised of 120,000 stars visible from Earth. The follow-up mission, Gaia, released its first data on September 14, 2016, and when complete will have accurately charted about 1.142 billion stars.
Astronomers really don’t like to answer questions about how many stars there are in the universe.There are too many unknown variables: space-time is curved, light travels at a certain speed and the universe at various other velocities, what the shape and size of the universe is (possibly infinite, according to some a folded dodecahedron) and whether there is more than one universe. David Kornreich of Ithaca College makes what he calls “likely a gross underestimation” of one septillion stars.
Written numerically, it looks like this:
On September 16, 2016, the artist Nicolas Baier opened his exhibitionAsterismsat Galerie Division in Montreal, which included a work of art that attempts to depict the 120,000 stars in the observable universe of the Hipparcos Catalogue. It was accurate right up to two days before the show opened. According to the artist, Gaia announced its data moments after the picture was hung.
Even with this exponential leap in the accuracy in which we chart stars, we have clear knowledge of only an infinitesimal amount of what’s out there.
Looking at Baier’s Hublot, 2016 (fig. 1), the closer we get to Earth, the more stars we can observe. Further and further out, the darker the universe becomes.
The title Hublotmeans porthole. We can only see the universe from a narrow porthole, the Earth.
The average, naked human eye can only see, according to the Yale Bright Star catalogue, 9,110 objects, of which 9,096 are stars, 10 are novae or supernovae, and 4 are star clusters.
And even that depends on where you stand. From any one place, you can only see half of that.
We have evidence, scraps, small chinks into the vastness of what we have yet to know.
In the white noise of old television is evidence for the Big Bang. Hidden in all that snowy static, those fleas crawling on the screen, that scrambled signal, is the origin of the universe. If you know where to look. We do not understand yet truly what made the universe or what shape it takes. But like Baier, we can weave tapestry out of its birth cries, we can take its imagined shape and color it with a shimmer of paint.
Once, Nicolas Baier was a photographer. Out of his old camera, he made a faulty digital scan and composed a sculpture, 7D Mark 02, 2016 (fig. 2). The camera is like an ancient relic, it seems to have half-dissolved. Baier needed to see beyond what cameras can capture and so do we.
According to many astrophysicists, the bulk of the universe is composed of material we cannot see. They call it Dark Matter. We can only know its existence through the mathematics of gravity. Its density forcing and moving that which we can see.
But Baier in Matière noire, 2016 (fig. 3), takes that impenetrable notion and gives it form, a black swirl.
Artists can make what scientists can only measure and imagine.
According to IBM, in 2012 humans produced 2.5 billion gigabytes of data a day (estimated to go up to 4.32 billion gigabytes a day by 2020). IBM went on to add that in the years 2011-12 we generated 90% of the data ever produced by humans in the history of the species.
You can store about 300 books in a single gigabyte. Every day we make enough data to produce about 750 billion books, give or take a few. The largest library in the world, the British Library, has about 170 million volumes. These numbers are pretty mind-boggling really, but every day we roughly produce an amount of data equal to 4238 British Libraries, or a British Library every 20 seconds or so.
Quantity is clearly not quality.The complete work of William Shakespeare could fit easily into 5 megabytes, or roughly a single photograph shot on your phone, depending on its resolution.
That cute snapshot of your cat, the dick-pic you got sent on Tinder, the photo you accidently took of the inside of your pocket. Data-wise, these could all be the equivalent to the complete Shakespeare.
If we equate stars to bytes of data, the number of stars would be known as a yottabyte, which at current rates (bound to increase exponentially) would take us about 25 years for humans to generate.
Let’s put these numbers into perspective just one more time.
In ten drops of water, there are more molecules than there are stars in the universe. A splash on your face, a gob of spit, the first droplet of rain to light on our face and trickle down your cheek has more data in it than the human species has ever produced.
Imagine a star in your hands. Pure liquid heat, radiant plasma. Juicy as an orange, sopping as a sponge. Hot, so hot.
Do you remember setting your hand on a stove as a reckless child, staring too long at the flickering flames of a campfire? Have you ever pressed a cigarette’s cherry into your flesh? Perhaps you have felt your skin peeling in terrifying sheaths from negligent days under the sun. This last is starfire, a heat so powerful that it can burn you from a million miles away. The brand coating your flesh.
Humans long to reunite with fire. The spark and heat that created life, our solar father. Smokers use it daily in the flick of a butane lighter or the scratch of a match. Far from starfire perhaps, but not infinitely so.
Our humble human ability to make fire, the origins are lost in legend. Prometheus was punished for giving us the sacred fire. Lucifer is just Latin for “light-bringer.” With fire comes power and wisdom. And pain. Of all the pain we experience in this life, burns are one of the worst.
It’s true in some distant way that we are all made of stardust.
It’s also nice to think the stars are made of us.
Can you envision data? Is it a sky bursting with stars, binary for miles, a server farm, a forest of signs, a layering of formulas and algorithms into a burst of light? How does it come together and what does it mean?
We forget easily that much of the collective human knowledge rests in our pocket. That we spend this wealth of knowledge looking at what our friends and acquaintances do reveals the terrible loneliness of our existence and how much we need to make some kind of connection.
The heavens are officially organized into 88 modern constellations recognized by the International Astronomical Union. Most of them came from Ptolemy, the ancient Greco-Egyptian astronomer living in the Roman province of Egypt in 2nd Century CE. The rest was invented by a handful of Europeans from the 16th to the 18th centuries, with the final list decided upon in 1928.
Of the 88 constellations, 42 are animals, 29 inanimate objects and 17 humans or mythological characters, and none of them of non-Western origin.
The constellations demarcate the sky as seen from Earth into different sections. The whole of the sky we see is marked into these different constellations. Asterisms, however, are a prominent pattern or group of stars, typically having a popular name but smaller than a constellation.
Orion’s Belt, the Northern Cross, and the Big Dipper. And though typically having a popular name and smaller than a constellation, asterisms are technically any identified grouping of stars.
Draw your vision across the cosmos, connect it in triangles and patterns, a connect-the-dots, and web the universe into any shapely meaning you wish.
The distance between the stars we see can be vast, and it’s only their appearance that seems proximal. But these patterns are the basis of our understanding of everything about space. Tracking their movement historically was an act of religious devotion and not enlightened scientific inquiry. Still, every day millions upon millions check their astrological charts to reflect on their lives, to try and understand who they are.
I can imagine the cosmos but I cannot imagine data.
“Cosmos” is a relatively recent word in modern parlance, containing within it a specific understanding of the universe. Ancient Greek in origin, it simply means “order” and was classically applied to a woman’s accessories more often than to the stars. It was brought back into usage by the mysterious Romantic hero and polymath Alexander von Humboldt in his five-volume work Kosmos (1845-62), an attempt to unify human culture with science. In it, von Humboldt sets forth an idea of the universe as a holistic entity, a thing with harmonious order. He asserts that the universal laws of science applied to the hot messes of human endeavor and the contemplation of the latter could bring about awe, reverence and peace.
Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return, and we can because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.
Cosmosis most certainly a Carl Sagan word, a word that taps into the feeling of awe and the sublime that humans can feel in response to the vastness of time and space that face us when we look into the sky. Whirling galaxies, the dusty light of nebulas and the streaming glow of the Milky Way, the universe stretches infinitely in all directions. Wheresoever we look there is more and the closer you look there is ever more complexity and potential, enough to never exhaust a hundred clever species, innumerable civilizations. Though the vastness of space and the complexity therein is still truly unimaginable, you can think about the molecules in ten drops of water, the twirl of a human genome, your navel and contemplate the vastness of the universe.
Worlds beyond worlds beyond worlds. You could hear that a galaxy of a hundred billion stars just collapsed and it wouldn’t mean more than a burst of light. A single planet exploding is still too much. We can hardly imagine the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima or the extinction of a single species, nevertheless the stars and their planets, the life-forms and histories that disappeared in a burst of distant light.
Harmony is words unstuck, but all of it, the universe, the cosmos, it works. Even badly, it works. Somehow. One struggles still somehow to call it “order.”
Try to imagine even a yottabyte of data. The 2.5 billion gigabytes of data we produce in a single day if burned onto Blu-Ray discs would stack higher than the Eiffel Tower. It is not infinite but it might as well be. These illustrations do little to understand the vastness that we make or the possibility of all that surrounds us through a galaxy, one of millions maybe, floating in cosmic space.
Others have tried. Borges dreamed of the Library of Babel. A series of orthogonal rooms, each with so many books to a shelf, so many shelves to a wall, repeated seemingly endlessly in all directions. All books that could be conceived or created existed there.
In the relations of molecules, in the structures of the mind, in the cosmos, there are near-infinite, if not infinite probabilities. They are limited like the library only by what is possible.
l repeat: In order for a book to exist, it is sufficient that it be possible. Only the impossible is excluded. For example, no book is also a staircase, though there are no doubt books that discuss and deny and prove that possibility, and others whose structure corresponds to that of a staircase.
They are limited in Borges’ story only by 25 orthographic symbols. The secret to the library argued endlessly, leading to revolts and revolutions, suicides and savagery, every method of attempting to understand through sense and nonsense the near-infinity of possible knowledge.
Fall to the ground and kiss the pages, burn every volume you touch, read every tenth book at random, imagine different libraries and in this library you will find a book describing it already.
The secret of the books is not in the books, but in their forms.
I will be bold enough to suggest this solution to the ancient problem: The Library is unlimited but periodic. lf an eternal traveler should journey in any direction, he would find after untold centuries that the same volumes are repeated in the same disorder-which, repeated, becomes order: the Order. My solitude is cheered by that elegant hope.
Borges achieves mastery in the library through writing. To journey on through centuries, combining those 25 symbols into stories, visions. Even if they already exist, the mastery is in the joy of writing, weaving those symbols into elaborate labyrinths like the Library.
The flow of data is too much for any consciousness. You cannot own the stars, nor contain all that they are, but you can make constellations.
Lay on your back in a field, in a midnight pool on an inflatable chaise, on the roof of a brownstone, a cottage, a skyscraper. On the frozen ice of a winter lake. Don’t think too hard, let it happen. Let the scorpions and warriors, kites and chameleons reveal themselves. Let their twinkle whisper across the cosmos. Connect them as you wish or not at all.
This is the magic of Ancients. This is art.
When Nicolas Baier puts together through a thousand scraps, the desk of an astrophysicist, a philosopher, an artist, it takes the right perspective to see it all come together. This is always true. He reminds us with this sculpture as rebus that all reality is limited by our perception. Invisible forces and the limited meters of our senses give us only one narrow picture.
Or like in his Percée, 2016 (fig. 4), Baier’s laboriously made picture of the caves where ancient cave paintings appeared. The origin of art is the beginning of humanity. In Baier’s work, the artist subtracts the cave paintings and their absence reveals the true nature of art, simply shadows in Plato’s cave. What we can see and what is really real are rarely the same thing.
In Forêt, 2016 (fig. 5), Baier imagines data like a white forest of gadgetry. He composes with the most powerful tools imaginable another forest made purely of data, Data, 2016 (fig. 6). Long, lovely trees dipping into a babbling creek. There is some comfort that it cannot yet be attained. His forest glade is beautiful, but it is still not real. Maybe the unreal, what we can imagine can force us to reflect and engage more deeply with what is real. Maybe these illusions can reveal invisible things that we cannot see in reality, the limits of the Promethean power granted us. At least, for now.
What is a constellation but a connection? Link them all up together and the lines form complex maps of potential meaning, not unlike the branching of dendrites in our brains. These connections are what make thought possible, the most basic element of what makes us human at all.
The constellations we traced out of the stars, though later to become astronomy, were really just a search for meaning. Cultures across the globe making stories out of how and why they were affixed to the heavens the way they were. Science itself is just another story, albeit empirical, and that can conceivably lead to the unlocking of new powers hidden from our naked eye.
But those early storytellers, the artists that made meaning out of that which we do not yet understand. That which we yearn to make true, to summon. Those visions that exist inside of us that do not yet exist until we make them.
Hiding in the darkness beyond the furthest stars we see, in the secret connections in how our minds work, the core essential quality of what makes us human.
Despite all our best efforts to examine, chart, and catalogue, with all our empires of data, we know only an infinitesimal amount about what there is to know about anything.
But through this porthole, on the edges of perception, we can make beauty. Nicolas Baier gives form to the boundless mysteries beyond and within what we know, he captures the darkness beyond the most distant star, gives eternity a form.
Sagan, Carl. Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, “Episode 1: The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean,” PBS, 1980. 5 min 50 sec.
Borges, Jorge Luis. The Library of Babel. Collected Fictions. Translated by Andrew Hurley. New York: Penguin, 1998, 112-118.