One of the more famous paintings known at least to us scientists is “Starry Night” by Vincent van Gogh. In addition to the brilliantly executed brush strokes, there is something absolutely marvelous in that star light swirling around in the night sky. And the topic is about the sky, and not the foreground. My article concerns this painting, among others.
The exploration of our universe is also marvelous. As scientists we explore other planets, stars, and galaxies to investigate their physical characteristics. We study the physics that governs their motion. We measure the sizes, distances and other properties of astronomical objects to understand their current state of evolution. We also test scenarios that in some cases also constrain their likely future trajectories and end states.
For example, my specialty is to study galaxies outside of the Milky Way. I am working right now to learn the physical processes that determine how many stars a galaxy will make in any given year. There is reason to believe that if I keep at it I will eventually either solve this problem or at least make progress in the right direction. Interestingly, if i fail, then someone else may come along and solve the same problem. In this way, some bits and pieces of nature are knowable, and are just waiting for someone to pick up the problem and solve it. In a sense there is less that is special about me in particular, apart from having the peculiar training and motivation to work on a particular problem.
This can be contrasted with the situation in the subject of art. As Director of Hayden Planetarium Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson once said, “If van Guogh does not paint Starry Night, then nobody is going to paint The Starry Night.” There were other artists contemporary with van Gogh, and there have been many artists since that time, yet no one else made this painting. It can be argued that perhaps no one else really could have made this exact painting. Even so, if van Gough had actually managed to become a preacher as his parents had intended, then the world would not have had a Starry Night, and scientists would have to wait longer to see a famous painting whose topic was the sky.