365daysDate: September 14, 2009

Title: The Starry Night


Podcaster: Sayward Duffano

Organization: Saywardstudio / ArtLab

Description: A look at how the heavens have inspired artists throughout history.

Bio: My name is Sayward Duffano. I live in Gulfport, MS, and am an artist and amateur astronomer. Since seeing The Starry Night when I was 5 years old I have had a fascination with the night sky and, of course, art. My art career and astronomy hobby cross paths from time to time, and I will paint astronomical paintings, although I do not consider myself a true ‘astro-artist.’ But for the International Year of Astronomy I am painting a series of portraits of the astronomers who have been so important to the science.

Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by an anonymous sponsor.


Hi. My name is Sayward Duffano, and this is my podcast for the 365 Days of Astronomy and the International Year of Astronomy.

Today I’m going to talk about how astronomy has influenced art, music, and popular culture.

In 1889, Vincent Van Gogh painted The Starry Night. The work is full of energy, and at the same time, peace. It portrays humanity blanketed by a star filled sky. From the time I saw it as a child, it had a profound effect on me.

As time went on, I did more studying on the night sky and space, and realized it was a much bigger, more complex place than I had previously thought.

I read about the pioneers of astronomy, and how they were unravelling the old ways of thinking, like that the Earth was at the center of the Universe, or that the sun revolved around the Earth and not the other way ’round.

I also studied their portraits, those that had them, and was always fascinated by the different clothing and hairstyles throughout the ages. They were like time capsules of sorts. It’s fun to imagine what life was like when these paintings were painted.

So then I started thinking, How has the study of astronomy influenced art and culture?

Art comes in many forms, like paintings, which is what most people think of when someone says ‘art.’ But there are other forms, such as music, books, movies, sculpture, and more. Astronomy has directly affected all of these arts.

Stargazers of the distant past were busy naming the stars, and inventing the constellations. These are easy to remember patterns of stars, and have been used for millennia.

Constellations have names, and if you ‘connect the dots’ they will loosely look like what they are named for. There are 88 named constellations, with 12 being associated with the Zodiac.

In astronomy, the Zodiacal constellations are a convenient way of marking the ecliptic, but apart from this , they have no other significant role in astronomy.

Stonehenge, in Wiltshire county, England, is reputed to be important in many astronomical alignments, and has stood for ages as primitive profound sculpture.

The artists of yesteryear were not only documenting the skies during the day and night, they were also documenting the astronomers that studied them as well. And thank goodness, too, because without their impressions of these people, we would have no idea what they looked like. While knowing what they looked like doesn’t change what they accomplished in their lifetimes, it helps to identify with the person.

The astronomers themselves were busy with their own kinds of art; they didn’t have the photo imaging equipment we take for granted today, but painstakingly noted and sketched their observations. A few artists still practice this today. Some of their sketches, when compared with a photo of the same scene show startling accuracy.

Up until the camera was invented in 1840 [1], painting or drawing was about the only way to capture the likeness of someone or something.

Moving forward a bit, the early part of the 20th century saw many advancements in all fields, but especially industry and sciences.

Radio was a new phenomenon, and in the 1930’s, they were in a lot of homes, as television was still in it’s infancy. Radio ‘plays’ were a lot like like tv shows of today. As early as 1938, space was playing a role in these stories.

H.G. Wells’ tale, War of the Worlds, was a story read over the radio by Orson Welles as if it were a live news broadcast covering an actual Martian invasion on Earth, complete with hysteria. People who missed the beginning of the program didn’t hear the introduction clearly stating that it was fiction, took it as fact, and legend has it people were running for the hills. One thing is for sure; this was an edgy time for the whole world, and as crazy as everything was, a Martian invasion apparently wasn’t out of the question.

When television was finally perfected, regular type tv shows started being produced.
Along with some really strange space themed movies, there were shows like Space Patrol, Flash Gordon, Tom Corbett – Space Cadet, Tales of Tomorrow, Rocky Jones: Space Ranger, Science Fiction Theatre, and others.

Many toys and products reflecting this fascination with space were produced, which were like art forms in themselves, such as ray guns, space men, space suits, space helmets, rocket ships, along with planet themed pajamas, wallpaper, and other items.

The Eames era of minimalist, space age modern furniture swept through the nation, as well as the ever popular starburst clock.

Cars had tail fins and bullet lights, reminiscent of rocket ships.

Later tv shows and movies that have space themes include the infamous Star Trek and Star Wars, 2001 – A Space Odyssey, and others like Lost in Space, Dr. Who, E.T., Enemy Mine, Contact, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Stargate Atlantis, and Babylon 5, among many more.

Arcade games featuring space include classics such as Asteroids, Defender, Moon Patrol, Space Invaders, Galaga, and Lunar Lander.

Astronomy also inspired music, often in profound ways.

Mozart’s Symphony #41 is nicknamed The Jupiter Symphony.

Gustav Holst’s Opus #32 is entitled The Planets.

Sun Ra spent his musical career with his Arkestra making abstract jazz tunes about the coolness of space.

Donovan uses planetary references in his song Cosmic Wheels.

Elton John has a song called Rocket Man.

RUSH has space themes peppered throughout their work, such as the song Cygnus X-1 Book 1.

In 1957, the Russians sent a satellite, Sputnik, into orbit. In 1962, President Kennedy declared that before the decade was out, we would go to the Moon, and we did so in 1969.

We learned a lot about the moon; the gravity there is about 1/6th of what it is on Earth. The lunar soil is extremely dry, has an odor that is described as “metallic” and “like wet ashes in a fireplace,” and there is no indigenous waters. The lunar day is about a month, and the sunny side bakes while it is freezing on the other side, the dark side of the moon.

Pink Floyd has an album of the same name; the cover features a prism breaking up the light into the color spectrum, something Newton studied centuries before.

David Bowie had a hit song called Space Oddity, which was released to coincide with the Apollo 11 moon landing, and also had the band Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, which has songs such as Lady Stardust and Starman.

There is also an old song called Blue Moon, which is also an irregularly timed moon according to some calendars. It is also a way of saying not very often – Once in a Blue Moon. There is a beer called Blue Moon, and there are even moon pies. Nick Drake has a beautiful song titled Pink Moon.

In the book Alice in Wonderland, the Cheshire cat has a crescent moon shaped smile, and that dry phase of the moon is commonly called a Cheshire Moon.

There is even an heirloom variety of watermelon called Moon and Stars, which I am growing this year in my garden.

Don Mc Lean has a song entitled Vincent, dedicated to my favorite artist, Vincent Van Gogh, which opens with the line, “Starry, starry night.”

Which brings me to the end of my podcast.

The astronomers, past and present, who opened up space and brought it closer to us, who helped spark the imagination, and the people who were inspired by their combined efforts are all stars in the starry, starry night.

September 14 is John Dobson’s birthday… Happy Birthday, John! 🙂


[1] There have been several other types of ‘camera’ developed before 1840, some documented text suggests the very first to be before Christ, and later, in 1727 Johann Heinrich Schulze discovered that silver nitrate darkened upon exposure to light. In later research, in 1814 Joseph Nicphore Nipce achieves first photographic image with camera obscura – however, the image required eight hours of light exposure and later faded. I decided to add the date in which the camera that provides permanent photography, as we know it, to be the ‘official’ date of invention.

Bibliography: (researched all info on here as a double measure.)

Quotes about moon soil odor :
Neil Armstrong “wet ashes in a fireplace.”
Buzz Aldrin “metallic”

All information in this podcast has been thoroughly researched and is accurate to the best of my ability. Any questions, comments etc. can be addressed at

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
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