Travel with Tula by Bill Herbst

The old adage is … travel to stay young. Physicists will tell you this is literally true. The laws of Special Relativity, which is so well established that it can hardly be called a theory anymore, include time dilation. The faster we go, the more our time slows down compared to a neighbor who stays home. Astronomers can even see this happen. Exploding stars, known as “supernovae”, in distant galaxies blow up in slow motion because those galaxies are speeding away from us so fast. Closer to home, scientists have made twin atomic clocks and flown one around the world, while the other stayed put. When back together again, sure enough, the twin who stayed home is older – albeit, not by much.

Tula Telfair, an amazing representational artist, takes us on a trip around her world in this incredible exhibition at Zilkha. Her large format paintings of landscapes are breathtaking in the spacious gallery. I recognize most of the scenes from my own travels, but – where are we exactly? We’re in Tula’s mind. It is truly unimaginable to me how anyone can capture on canvas, as Tula does, the complexity and beauty of icebergs calved from a glacier, a field of grass and vines, or sunlit clouds. Wow.

Representational drawing was once very important in my field. Astronomers of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries used drawings of cosmic scenes viewed through a telescope to report their observations and record them. Comparison and interpretation of the drawings led to many discoveries – moons orbiting Jupiter, rings around Saturn, spots on the surface of a rotating Sun. They also led to some mistakes, when the representations turned out to be misleading. A famous example is the canals of Mars, which began as unnaturally straight lines between darker spots on the surface of the planet, appearing in some drawings. These turned out to exist only in the mind of the observer who drew them; modern photographs show no such structures.

In astronomy, representational drawing was replaced by photography, beginning around 1850 – first using chemical emulsions and now digital processes. This took some subjectivity out of the equation, but has certainly not stopped the debate about what causes various particular features. In art, however, photography has not replaced representational drawing, even the versions such as Tula’s that are realistic. I find that interesting because it speaks to the purposes of art and science. I believe neither is predominantly utilitarian, although both have that component. Science and art are fundamentally about the same thing – exploring the truth and beauty of the natural world we inhabit, for its own sake.

The other similarity between art and science that came to mind as I strolled through the gallery is that nothing is every finished. Our theories and understanding of natural laws are incomplete and always will be. Our travels never come to an end. Wouldn’t it be boring if they did! Science can probe ever closer to the Big Bang … a trillionth of a trillionth of a second in the latest results from a South Pole telescope … but it can’t get to the starting point. Tula has more paintings to inspire us, more places to show us, and more clouds to illuminate for us. Keep on traveling – stay young forever.


This essay was written by Bill Herbst, Professor of Astronomy