Spot the Milky Way

Seeing stars: Adam Elsheimer's Flight into Egypt represents the Milky Way as a series of dots. Credit: ALTE PINAKOTHEK, MUNICH

Ancient Mediterranean civilizations believed that the Milky Way was composed of milk spilled from the breast of a goddess. But when Galileo turned a telescope to the heavens for the first time in 1609, he showed instead that it was made up of untold numbers of individual stars. Adam Elsheimer's Flight into Egypt, which was completed in the same year, is the first depiction of the Milky Way in an oil painting.

The painting, which shows the holy family travelling in a scene illuminated by a low-hanging Moon, presents the Milky Way as a series of dots. Does this mean that some people had already understood the true nature of the galaxy, asks Francesco Bertola in his sumptuous new book about the Milky Way, Via Lactea (Biblos, €39.95).

The book highlights 60 images that illustrate how artists from across the world, over more than two millennia, have represented the faint celestial arc of the Milky Way. It also includes astronomical pictures taken using ground- and space-based telescopes, particularly the Hubble.

The book's text, in English and Italian, describes the myths and legends associated with the Milky Way, as well as its science. But there is also a moral. The Milky Way, inspiration for so much art, philosophy and simple wonder, is no longer visible to most inhabitants of our light-polluted world.

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Abbott, A. Spot the Milky Way. Nature 427, 489 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/427489b

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