Friday, July 9, 2010

Aussie Atlas Reaches For The Stars

Chart Of the Constellation Aries.
From John Flamsteed's Atlas Coelestis. (1729)

(Images Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.)

Way back in 1599, Shakespeare knew astrology was a cop out. As Cassius told his pal Brutus "the not in our stars, But in ourselves." However I still bring up the fact that I'm a "typical Taurus" when people say I'm stubborn. And I do enjoy reading my horoscope, though I know I share it with a billion other bulls. (And that it really is a bunch of bull...) But there was a time when looking to the stars for guidance was cutting edge science. And a rare atlas just acquired by the National Library of Australia proves it.

Even today, sailors still get lost at sea--witness the recent media frenzy surrounding Abby Sunderland, who failed in an attempt to circumnavigate the globe and wound up adrift in the Indian ocean. And this despite the fact she took to the seas with all manner of GPS technology, communications devices, and other electronic gear. Imagine trying to go around the world with only the stars for guidance.

The Chart Of The Constellation Libra.

When Captain James Cook was sailing across the Pacific Ocean in 1768, the great southern hemisphere land masses had yet to be mapped, but the southern skies had already been extensively charted. This meant the only navigational charts Cook and other early explorers could consult were contained in "star atlases." These precise guides to the stars' positions in the heavens were produced between 1600 to 1800, during Europe's Golden Age of celestial cartography. A time which coincides with the European discovery, charting, and early settlement of Australia.

The star atlas Captain Cook relied upon aboard the HMS Endeavour, during his famous transit of Venus and southern hemisphere explorations, was the Atlas Coelestis, or Atlas of the Heavens, by the first British astronomer royal, John Flamsteed. It is a copy of this large-scale atlas, published in 1729, that the National Library in Canberra purchased for more than $50,000 in July of 2010 from an antiquarian dealer in New York.

The Chart Of The Constellation Pieces.

The library's curator of maps, Martin Woods, said that in its day, the Atlas Coelestis set a new standard in accuracy. ''It contained more stars than previous atlases, it utilised a very precise grid and its star positions were based on telescopic observations which Flamsteed had painstakingly checked and re-checked over the course of his 43-year career.''

The Atlas Coelestis is considered one of the ''big four'' star atlases. The Australian library now has two of the four, the other being a 1603 edition of the Uranometria by Johann Bayer, which was the first star atlas to document the skies of the Southern Hemisphere. Curator Martin Woods remarked that such celestial charts were prized by some for their form rather than their function: ''There was a sort of fashion for star atlases. They were romantic objects, [that fused] mythology with science, so they had a kind of popular mystique. But for navigators, they were real tools..."

Chart Of the Northern Constellation Cetus.

The Australian National Library still hopes to acquire the Firmamentum Sobiescianum sive Uranographia of Johannes Hevelius (1690), and the Uranographia of Johann Elert Bode (1801), to complete their quartet. Which means star atlases have remained a bibliographic "must have" for over 400 years. Likewise even in the 21st Century there are still plenty of folks who'd rather look to the stars to explain their behavior than to themselves. Anybody seen today's horoscope for Taurus?

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