The Aesthetics of Astronomy Inspires a Course and Exhibition

Human beings have probably been stargazers from the beginning. How did they try to account for what they saw? First by way of religion and mythology, then through natural philosophy. It was only in the early modern period that science began to branch off from philosophy, says Daniele Macuglia, AM’10, a doctoral candidate in the Committee on Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science.

Distinct as these approaches are, they are linked, Macuglia believes, by beauty. “No matter the particular religious view, philosophical assumption, or scientific theory under consideration,” he says, there is something “extraordinary and intrinsically beautiful in all the ideas used to explain the mysteries of the universe.”

With the 27 College and graduate students in his Spring Quarter seminar Beauty in the History of Astronomy, Macuglia explored the aesthetic appeal of Renaissance models of the solar system, ancient creation myths, drawings by Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo Galilei, and more. Students came from fields as varied as physics, history, medicine, economics, and public policy. Though the course was not for credit, they threw themselves into the work.

In small study groups they researched how thinkers from antiquity through the present have tackled basic questions about the universe: What is the sun? What is the moon? Are we alone in the universe? How and when did the universe begin?

Some of these questions are deceptively simple, says Macuglia. In other cases the answers are still largely unknown. Yet they’ve all held a firm grip on human imagination, and the search for answers has a long, rich story.

Some of that story unfolded in a June exhibition that Macuglia and his students mounted in the Special Collections Research Center and then moved to International House and Ida Noyes Hall for a command performance. The student groups displayed posters summarizing their research, and Special Collections loaned early or first editions of primary source documents. These included publications of Nicolaus Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, and Dante; manuscript copies of St. Thomas Aquinas’s works; a 16th-century Bible; and several works by Galileo. A copy of The Assayer (Il Saggiatore, 1623) owned by Special Collections contains a small handwritten note by the Italian astronomer. “I for one,” says College fourth-year Alison McManus, “had never been so close to Renaissance astronomy.”

Originally from Venice, Macuglia is writing his dissertation on the spread of Newtonianism in the Italian peninsula in the 18th century and travels back to Italy often to delve into archives. He completed graduate work in physics before coming to UChicago to work on the cultural dimension of the evolution of scientific ideas. History, he says, is “an extremely important aspect of our life. You can’t imagine what it would mean to live without knowing where we came from.”

- Laura Demanski, AM'94