December 5, 2012
The curators and researchers spend a lot of time reading, everything from classic novels to the latest exhibition catalog. We asked some of them to lend us their reading lists to see which titles rose to the top and why.
For the Art Connoisseurs:
Leslie Umberger, from the American Art Museum, recommends:
“James Castle: Show and Store, an exhibition catalogue produced by the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sophia in 2011 brilliantly navigates the complex depths of Idaho artist James Castle (1899-1977). Fresh, insightful, and deeply moving, the images and essays explore a truly, astonishing, poetic and enigmatic body of work–drawings of soot, paper constructions, and carefully rendered books and letters–entirely in its own terms. Perfectly magical.”
Lisa Hostetler, from the American Art Museum, recommends:
“Photography Changes Everything, edited by Marvin Heiferman (Aperture/Smithsonian Institution, 2012). It’s an interesting look at the wide variety of ways that photographs are used and how photography itself has affected contemporary culture. Two exhibition catalogues that I’ve been looking forward to reading are Cindy Sherman (MoMA, 2012) and Rineke Dijkstra (Guggenheim, 2012). Sherman and Dijkstra are two of today’s most compelling artists, and these retrospectives are important compendia of their careers.”
Maya Foo, from the Freer and Sackler, recommends:
“Rome by Robert Hughes. In college, I studied art history in Rome and I have wanted to return to Italy ever since. Robert Hughes’ Rome is a readable and rich history of the city told through art, architecture, literature and the author’s personal narrative.”
For the Wordsmiths:
David Ward, from the National Portrait Gallery, recommends:
“What with the opening of Poetic Likeness at the museum this fall and co-editing Lines in Long Array: A Civil War Commemoration, which includes 12 newly commissioned poems, my mind has been mostly on poetry the last year or so. I have been especially taken by the following titles: First, work by two of the great “voices” in modern American poetry, one still vital even at 85, John Ashbery, and the other sadly gone, Adrienne Rich, who passed away earlier this year after an amazingly powerful career. Adrienne Rich, Later Poems: Selected and New, 1971-2012 (WW Norton, 2012). John Ashbery, Quick Question: New Poems (Ecco, 2012).
The writer Eavan Boland is not only a first-rate poet but she is continually interesting on the subject of writing, literary history and social roles. Her latest book explores the sense of doubleness that she navigates in her career: A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet.
Two prize-winning books by two of America’s best poets are also of note: Jorie Graham’s Place (Ecco, 2012) and Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars (Greywolf, 2011), which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2012.
Also, a pitch for a book that was published a couple of years ago that I don’t think got as much attention as it should have, from Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors, A New Literary History of America (Harvard University Press, 2009), which came out in paperback in 2012. It provides a really valuable, entertaining and incisive view of 500 years of American writing.”
For the Scientists:
John Grant, from the National Air and Space Museum, recommends:
Roving Mars: Spirit, Opportunity and the Exploration of the Red Planet by Steve Squyres is good for adults. Squyres writes about his work as the principal investigator on both the Spirit and Opportunity missions to Mars in 2004. A good read for people following the more recent Mars developments with the Curiosity mission.
And for the younger set: Fly Me to Mars by Catherine Weitz is a terrific kids book.
For the History Buffs:
Cory Bernat, co-curator of FOOD: Transforming the American Table at American History, recommends:
Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America by Harvey Levestein, which covers America’s eating habits from the 1930s to present day.
John Edward Hasse, at the American History Museum, likes:
Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood and How It Changed America, by John M. Barry, because it’s a “fascinating story told so compellingly that it reads almost like a novel.”
Nancy Bercaw, of the American History Museum, suggests:
Tiya Miles’ Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom, first published in 2006, but an interesting read for readers looking for something different in the Civil War sesquicentennial.
November 16, 2012
When the band They Might Be Giants re-recorded the 1959 song “Why Does the Sun Shine?” for its 1993 EP, they played to a much-repeated piece of science fiction. The track, subtitled “The Sun is a Mass of Incandescent Gas,” gets some basic sun science wrong. “A gas is a state of matter in which the material is not ionized, so all of the atoms still have all of their electrons and really the sun’s gas is in a state called plasma,” says Smithsonian astrophysicist Mark Weber.
Though scientists had known this for quite some time, once it was pointed out to the band, it promptly issued an updated track in 2009, “Why Does the Sun Really Shine? The Sun is a Miasma of Incandescent Plasma.”
But Weber, who will present Saturday, November 17 at the Air and Space Museum, says, that’s not all that’s new in the world of sun science.
“The sun is a very interesting object of study,” he says. “People shouldn’t assume that we’ve moved on from the sun.”
The sun does all kinds of things, Weber says, “it has all sorts of different features and all sorts of different events and phenomenologies.”
One of the phenomena currently on the minds of solar researchers is why the corona, the plasma atmosphere surrounding the surface of the sun, is so incredibly hot. “All of the energy from the sun comes from the interior of the sun and so sort of a simple, thermodynamic interpretation would expect the temperature of the sun to decrease as you go further and further away from the core,” says Weber. And that’s mostly true, he says, with one notable exception: “There’s a point we call the transition region, where the temperature rockets from a few thousand degrees at the surface of the sun up to millions of degrees in the corona.”
Weber’s particular focus is determining precisely how hot the corona is. Scientists are also trying to understand what processes might be heating the plasma to such extremes. Weber says, “There’s a lots of great ideas, it’s not that we don’t have any idea what’s going on,” adding, “What might be heating one part of the corona, like say a single standing loop of plasma, might be very different from what’s going on, say, in an active region, which are these areas over sun spots that are really hot and have all kinds of eruptions happening all the time.”
Between the transition region and the erupting sun spots, Weber seeks to show people that the sun is anything but static. “A lot of people have this idea that the sun is a yellow ball in the sky and that we understand everything about it.” But he says the sun is incredibly dynamic and has been dazzling scientists for hundreds of years. In fact, in the 19th century, scientists believed they had discovered completely new elements while studying the spectral emissions from the sun. “They were seeing spectral lines that they couldn’t identify,” says Weber. “That’s because these lines are coming from very highly ionized ions, which implies a very high temperature.” But at the time, says Weber, “No one expected that the temperature of the atmosphere of the sun was so much hotter, that just didn’t occur to people.” And so they named the new element–which was actually highly ionized iron–coronium.
Now of course, scientists are capable of collecting far more sophisticated analysis, including from a recent rocket mission called the High Resolution Coronal Imager, or Hi-C. “We got to see a small section of the solar atmosphere at a higher resolution than anyone had ever observed before,” says Weber, who was involved in the project. One of the things they were finally able to see was that what had once been thought to be single loops of plasma were in fact multiple intricately braided strands. Weber says, “We could even see the braiding sort of twisting around and shifting, as we were watching the sun with this rocket flight.”
With all the new imaging available, Weber says people are amazed to discover how beautiful the sun truly is. He says, “You’re just sort of overwhelmed by how much is going on.” And, he adds, “It’s a fascinating area to do physics in!”
As part of the Smithsonian’s Stars Lecture Series, Mark Weber will present his lecture, The Dynamic Sun at the Air and Space Museum, Saturday, November 17 at starting at 5:15 p.m.
August 15, 2012
How does one map the sky? It’s a daunting proposal to be sure and no Google cars or cameras are up to the task, but the team behind the Sloan Digital Sky Survey is making headway. The group, now in their third phase of research, recently released the largest ever 3-D map of the sky with some 540,000 galaxies.
Large though it is, the recent map covers a mere eight percent of the sky. By mid-2014, the team, led by Daniel Eisenstein at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, will have gathered enough additional information to complete a quarter of the sky.
Other than making a very cool animated video (above) about the project, in which viewers can seem to sail by almost 400,000 galaxies, the map will prove useful in a variety of research projects, from dark energy to quasars and the evolution of large galaxies, and the new information provides more accurate data than any other previous sky survey. Using a combination of imaging and spectroscopy, scientists are able to chart the distance of galaxies and other objects within 1.7 percent precision. In the past, the distances of bodies in space could only be measured by the far less precise Doppler shift observation of Hubble’s Law.
“That’s a very provocative value of precision because astronomers spent a lot of the last century arguing about whether the Hubble Constant was 50 or 100, which is basically arguing about a factor of two in distance. Now we’re using this method to get to precisions approaching a percent,” explains Eisenstein.
The mapping method relies on something called the baryon acoustic oscillation, which is “caused by sound waves that propagate in the first million years after the Big Bang,” Eisenstein explains. “These sound waves basically cause a tiny correlation between regions of space 500 million light years apart.” In the years after the Big Bang, as one galaxy formed and became too dense, it would emit a sound wave. “That sound wave travels out to a distance that corresponds today with 500 million light years and where it ends up produces (a region) slightly more enhanced than its galaxy population.” In other words, there is a slightly above average dispersion of galaxies 500 million light years apart than there are at 600 or 400 million light years.
“Because we know these sound waves pick out a distance of 500 million light years, now we can actually measure distance [in the universe], so in the survey we’ve measured the distance to these galaxies.”
These more accurate measurements mean exciting news for the search for dark energy, the acceleration of the expansion of the universe. “The way we measure dark energy is by measuring distances to certain objects with very high precision,” says Eisenstein.
The method for taking these measurements is surprisingly physical in nature. Initial imaging allows the scientists to get a basic map of what objects are where in a certain region of the sky: quasars, galaxies, stars and other items. They then select which objects would be useful for further study. Since so many teams, including the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Cambridge, are involved, different groups pick different objects depending on their area of research.
Moving onto spectroscopy, the researchers can measure 1,000 objects at a time. On a large aluminum disk, they drill holes to correspond to each objects’ position. “On a given plate there might be 700 galaxies and 200 quasar candidates and 100 stars,” Eisenstein explains. Then the team will hand-place fiber optic cables into each hole. Light from each object hits the cables and is taken to the instrument. The disk sits for an hour to absorb the light and then it’s on to the next portion of the sky. Some nights the team will fill up to nine disks, but that’s rare.
Visitors can view some of the materials used by the sky survey team at the Air and Space Museum, including a charge couple device that converts light into electrical signals that can be read digitally to create a functional map.
When the project is completed, they will have 2,200 plates and a map of some two million objects. And you’ll have the night sky at your fingertips. Google that!
June 21, 2012
Upon entering the African Art Museum’s new exhibition, “African Cosmos: Stellar Arts,” for the first time, Johnnetta B. Cole, director of the African Art Museum, was abruptly transported back to the evenings of her childhood in Jacksonville, Florida.
“I would go through a ritual each and every night that we were allowed to stay up a little late and play outside,” she recalled at the exhibition press preview. “I would look up to the sky and say something I suspect little girls and boys in multiple languages around the world say: Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight.”
This universal wonder inspired by the night sky is at the heart of “African Cosmos,” which opened yesterday and will be on view through December 9. The opening coincides with a recent announcement that South Africa and eight other African partners will host the radio telescope-based Square Kilometre Project, which will “literally probe the early origins of the universe,” according to Derek Hanekom, the Deputy Minister of Science and Technology in South Africa.
The cavernous gallery houses a hundred artifacts of “cultural astronomy,” as curator Christine Mullen Kreamer puts it, in the form of cosmos-related African artwork from ancient Egypt and Nubia to present day. The diverse body of work breaks away from the Western and scientific conception of the universe to tell a different narrative of cosmic understanding. This narrative encompasses many different interpretations of the sky over time, including the Yoruba depiction of the universe as a lidded vessel, burial paintings of the Egyptian sky goddess Nut, and a 1990 painting by South African artist Gavin Jantjes linking the continent’s staple foods like yams, cassava, barley and rice with the movement of the river constellation Eridanus, which appears before the Nile floods.
A cornerstone of the exhibition is a video installation by South African artist Karel Nel as part of COSMOS, a Caltech astronomy project mapping a two-degree square area of the universe. The video zooms in towards the center of the universe and back out again, as a chorus of African crickets chirps. Nel was struck by how the crickets that would sing outside his studio at night sounded like “deep space.” The chirps are then played backwards, transformed into eerie, alien-like clicks.
Why is this Afro-centric narrative of the universe so important? Primarily, the exhibition wants visitors to “understand Africa’s role in the history of knowledge over time,” says curator Mullen Kreamer.
This reclaimed role in building knowledge is especially relevant now, in light of the decision to install the bulk of the Square Kilometre Project in South Africa. The army of radio telescopes will trace faint radio signals to map the evolution of the universe and determine the positions of the nearest billion galaxies. Most of the 3,000 telescopes will be installed in the semi-arid regions of South Africa, where there is little interference from cell phone towers or TV broadcast. Hanekom, who was present at the opening, emphasized the significance of the move.
“It is an expression of confidence in African scientific capabilities such as we’ve never seen before,” Hanekom says. “This [project] is going to be a catalyst. It will take us from a continent seen to be riddled with poverty and underdevelopment to a continent that will have a major offer to make to global knowledge.”
“African Cosmos” can help contextualize this project within the long tradition of African sky-watching. The museum also hopes it will open the minds of children who may feel intimidated by technology. “Science, engineering and technology for some communities has become something so foreign, so complicated; something that young children simply do not want to relate to,” Director Cole says. But as she well knows, every child can relate to that instinctive desire to wish upon a star.
African Cosmos: Stellar Art is on display through December 9.
June 4, 2012
Tuesday, June 5 Transit of Venus
Don’t miss your last chance this century to see Venus pass between the sun and the earth. Since it’s not safe to stare directly into the sun, watch the transit through one of the Air and Space Museum‘s special solar telescopes. Inside the museum, experts Dr. David DeVorkin and Dr. Jim Zimbelman will guide curious visitors through this rare event. Free. 6:00 p.m. Air and Space Museum.
Wednesday, June 6 Living Portraits
Portraitist Alexa Meade, acclaimed for her “living paintings,” takes over the Kogod Courtyard to paint two live models into background sets. Enjoy specialty cocktails and take your own portraits against Meade’s painted scenes. Find Ann M. Shumard, curator of the exhibition In Vibrant Color: Vintage Celebrity Portraits from the Harry Warnecke Studio, to chat about both Warnecke’s and Meade’s boundary-breaking portraits. Free. 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. National Portrait Gallery.
Thursday, June 7 The Artist as Dissident: Ai WeiWei
Chinese artist Ai WeiWei, who currently has exhibitions at both the Hirshhorn Museum and the Sackler Gallery, is both a uniquely innovative artist and an outspoken political advocate who has tested the limits of freedom of expression in contemporary China. Despite frequent arrests, he continues to create and to send out his message of the interrelationship of art and politics. Join Michelle Wang, assistant professor of art history at Georgetown University, in an exploration of dominant themes in Ai’s work. $20 for members, $30 for general admission. 6:45 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. S. Dillon Ripley Center.
For a complete listing of Smithsonian events and exhibitions visit the goSmithsonian Visitors Guide. Additional reporting by Michelle Strange.