Arts editor, Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou is dazzled by the Science Museum’s current exhibition, The Sun: Living With Our Star.
We all know what happens to those who fly too close to the sun. Wings melt, feathers fall and one ends up drowning in the Mediterranean Sea – or so the story goes. But the Science Museum’s latest exhibition, The Sun: Living With Our Star, avoids this Icarian fate. Using satellite footage from NASA, interactive displays – including an artificial beach – and innumerable artefacts and images, the museum brings us face-to-face with Helios and his stellar power. Leading us through four enlightening sections on time, health, energy and observation, the exhibition charts the history of man’s relationship to the sun. From Norman Lockyer’s helium-discovering spectroscope to Jimmy Carter’s White House solar panels, this blockbuster show draws us deeper and deeper into the sun’s radiance with each historical discovery.
But first it begins with the myths – the ancient legends and beliefs surrounding our star. Unlike today, civilizations of old obsessed over the sun’s movements or its supposed “course” through the heavens. In order to control its diurnal travels, Bronze Age Scandinavians created special instruments and models which were then used in religious rituals. Two such objects are shown in the exhibition: a replica of the Trundholm Sun Chariot (the original dates back to around 1400 BC) and a golden cup complete with a horse head handle. These beautifully crafted objects mix myth, utility and misguided proto-scientific enquiry to enchanting effect. The Trundholm Sun Chariot not only incorporates symbols necessary to every-day life in Bronze Age Scandinavia, but prefigures the Hellenic myths concerning the solar deity Apollo and his horse-led jaunts across the sky. For the Scandinavians, the sun both orbited the earth and presided over it; it kept day and night separate (with a little assistance from animal helpers and wheeled vehicles), but also had the potential to disrupt agricultural activity with catastrophic results. The need to rein the star in to suit man’s purpose was clearly evident in the design.
This erroneous notion that the sun revolved around the earth was supported by the Roman Catholic Church and philosophers well into the seventeenth century. Although a heliocentric system had been proposed as early as 270 BC by the ancient mathematician and astronomer Aristarchus of Samos, philosophical and ecclesiastical authorities staunchly defended the geocentric (Ptolemaic) belief that the earth was the stationary centre of the universe. Nicolaus Copernicus’ On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Orbs (1543) offered the first significant challenge to the geocentric system. In Copernicus’ work, printed months before his death, he theorised that the earth not only rotated daily on its axis, but revolved yearly around the sun, as did other planets. Copernicus’ revolutionary work, together with the supporting findings of Galileo and Newton, are found in Room 1, just a meter or so away from the Trundholm Sun Chariot. With its Latinate print and simple diagram of a heliocentric system, Copernicus’ text dismissed the deistic figure of the sun, as well as his fiery steads, and unsettled the humanist and biblical belief that man was the crux of the cosmos.
Despite debunking the long-held myth of geocentricism, Astronomers like Copernicus brought man closer to the sun. With the eventual realisation that it was the sun’s gravitational pull that kept the earth moving (not the other way round), our dependency on the star became translucently apparent. Although “sun” time altered to clock time (sun dials were eventually replaced with mechanical watches) and religious doctrine gave way to natural philosophy, the sun was more vital than ever. From the late eighteenth century onwards, medical practitioners wanted to harness the sun’s properties to help alleviate ailments and cure fatal illnesses. Room 2 explores how apothecaries, doctors and inventors sought to utilise sunlight to improve health. Thus we learn of how patients suffering from tuberculosis were either sent to sanatoriums in warmer climates or prescribed increased exposure to sunlight because of its bactericidal properties. Child sufferers of TB were encouraged to lie in spinal carriages that would then be wheeled outdoors. One such carriage is on display and looks eerily similar to the wooden carts used to collect plague-ridden corpses.
Another disturbing instrument featured is the electric light bath created by cereal magnate Dr John Harvey Kellogg. Akin to the spinal carriage, the electric light bath originated from contemporary research into phototherapy and supposedly cured serious ailments. Kellogg believed his light therapy bath could cure scarlet fever, diabetes, chronic gastritis and constipation. With mirror-lined wooden panels and metal plated piping, the light bath resembles a glorified electric chair or a contraption of torture – something one would find in Orwell’s Room 101 or Bluebeard’s chamber, not a health clinic. Whether Kellogg’s machine cured anyone of obesity or scurvy is debatable, but it’s clearly a forerunner of the modern tanning bed, albeit a frightening one.
What wasn’t accounted for by early medical practitioners was the increase in sun-related diseases. The dark side of our star – or rather our relationship to it – is the negative impact it has on our health. Opposite Kellogg’s torturous therapeutic light bath, old commercial campaigns alert the sun-loving, sunbathing public to the risks of skin cancer; and across from this a collection of sunglasses worn by Inuit people, RAF pilots and gondoliers tells the story of how overexposure to light can cause blindness. What marries these two sides of the sun together is the artificial beach in the middle of the gallery. It is here, amongst the sun-kissed sand, deck chairs and summer scene, that the hot heat of our star proves too much for us.
Whilst health experts worried over the pros and cons of sunlight, scientists and engineers converted its energy into power. Room 3 is an interactive guide to how light and heat from the sun has been used throughout history to start fires, cook food, power trains and provide electricity. Model replicas of locomotives, portable solar collectors and cookers are just a few of the now-redundant yet once innovative objects on display here. But the item that really catches the eye is Jimmy Carter’s White House solar panels. Underwhelming as it may appear, the solitary solar panel on show has an impressive story behind it. Carter was a strong advocate of conservation and renewable energy technologies. So much so that in 1979, at a time when attitudes to alternative fuels were changing, he installed solar water heaters on the roof of the White House. As Oliver Carpenter aptly says in his article, Carter turned ‘science into politics’ when he declared his ‘faith in the power of the sun to enrich’ the lives of Americans over ‘foreign oil’. Carter’s pledge (and short-lived instalment of solar panelling, since the next president, Ronald Reagan, had it removed) rather poignantly reminds us of the current President of America. Unlike Carter’sadministration, Trump’s continues to deny the reality of climate change, refuses to adopt policies that protect the environment and imposes high tariffs on the solar industry. Converting sunlight into energy has never been so political.
Capturing the sun, on the other hand, remains a scientific and artistic endeavour. Room 4, entitled ‘Observing the Sun’, brings us full circle, with artists and scientists joining forces to analyse sunspots and solar storms through visual imagery. The paintings of James Nasmyth and Etienne Trouvelot may not eclipse the photography and films recorded by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft, but they certainly convey the tumultuous, brooding surface of the sun. Nasmyth’s work was used by solar astronomers to evaluate the impact sunspots had on weather patterns and crop yields; whereas, Trouvelot’s dramatic renderings of solar protuberances and the aurora borealis were commissioned by Harvard College Observatory. For those seeking to touch the sun and skim its fiery surface, Icarus-style, imaging from NASA’s spacecraft and probes is the next best thing. In an appended darkened space, a large screen shows footage of a bubbling volcanic-orange sphere; at one moment orange, then yellow, then blue, NASA’s imaging shows the many faces, moods and stormy sides of the sun. Call it what you like – Ah Kin, Apollo, Aten, Helios, Hyperion or Sol – this is The Sun, ‘Our Star’, burning brighter than ever before.
The Sun: Living With Our Star is on at the Science Museum from 6th October 2018 to 6th May 2019. Tickets are £15, concessions are available. Kids aged 16 and under get free entry. For more information, click here and to get a glimpse of NASA’s imaging click here.