Howard Russell Butler’s “Hydrogen prominences”

Howard Russell Butler's [Hydrogen prominences]

Hydrogen prominences are bright, looping projections that emanate from the sun’s mass, as illustrated by Howard Russell Butler in “Hydrogen Prominences.” Scientists are still trying to figure out why the prominences form, but they do know that they are made of plasma. Plasma is sometimes called the “fourth state of matter,” or “super-heated matter,” because it only forms when gas grows hot enough to strip electrons from their atoms, a process called ionizing. Butler observed these solar prominences while witnessing a solar eclipse in 1917 at the Mt. Wilson Observatory.

Before the advent of modern imaging technology, the task of creating visual representations of a solar eclipse and solar hydrogen prominences were not straightforward. A solar eclipse lasts for only about two minutes. Butler needed to figure out a preliminary way to record the eclipse while it was underway so as to create a reference guide for his painting. He devised a shorthand code to record various colors transformations during the eclipse while he looked on through binoculars. Using his color code and several black and white photographs of the eclipse, Butler recreated not only the solar eclipse, but also the hydrogen prominences, which are only visible, flaring out past the edges of the overlapping sun and moon, during a solar eclipse.

Butler carved out a unique career for himself as an both an artist and scientist, specializing in painting portraits, seascapes, and celestial phenomena. In addition to his skill as a painter, Butler was a prominent community leader and one of the founders of The American Fine Arts Society, alongside Louis C. Tiffany and other influential American artists and architects. Butler went on to design the AMNH’s Hall of Astronomy as a darkened rotunda, four levels high, topped by a dome onto which the newly invented Zeiss Projector would recreate the evening sky, full of over 4,000 stars.

Butler’s work illuminates the necessary interplay of scientific and artistic enterprise. These forces together propel innovation and discovery. The AMNH is a site of communication and exchange between the two fields, and artistic renderings of cosmic objects grab our attention and our pocketbooks. Additionally, the AMNH is a site of production, where we actually produce knowledge about the world. This involves imagination, creativity, and innovation. How does the AMNH’s exhibit design attract visitors? Does this contribute to scientific innovation? Should we be suspicious or encouraging of the reliance on donor money from all kinds of places where knowledge is produced, such as universities, museums, and research centers?

Written by Katrina Van Dyke

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