September 17, 2009


McMaster art exhibit recreates

centuries-old stellar explosions

Hamilton, Ont. September 17, 2009A dazzling new exhibit at the McMaster Museum of Art has transformed the art gallery back to a time when two spectacular supernovae explosions, which took place hundreds of years ago, revolutionized the way astronomers viewed the night skies.

In celebration of the International Year of Astronomy, Light Echo is a recreation of the

Tycho supernova, named after Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, and the Cas A supernova, both of which exploded during the 16th and 17th centuries.  

More than four hundred years later, so-called light echoes—light that erupts in all directions when a star explodes and consequently bounces off surrounding dust clouds—can still be seen from those cataclysmic events.

McMaster University’s Doug Welch, a professor of physics and astronomy, collaborated on the project with Calgary artist Dianne Bos. Together, they have transformed a specially-constructed, darkened room in the campus gallery to allow viewers to experience the starry skies as they would have appeared to Tycho, whose observations challenged the thinking of the day.

“Earth was considered to be the centre of the universe and the heavens were supposed to be perfect and unchanging,” explains Welch. “By re-enacting the Tycho supernova of 1572, we are recreating the first time astronomers truly understood that supernovas actually took place far outside Earth’s atmosphere.”

In 2008, Welch and an international team of scientists published the discovery of the light echoes from those early supernovas—the first ever to be found in the Milky Way. 

 “We confirmed that these ghostly bands of light move steadily across the sky and illuminated clouds of dust between the stars,” he says. “That experience has led me to a deeper appreciation of how the universe communicates with us and how light is truly the universe’s memory.”

To construct the art installation itself and create a realistic starry night, Welch uses a microcontroller to manipulate dozens and dozens of LED bulbs, each of varying brightness. They are meticulously arranged to represent the constellations in which the supernovae appeared.

The installation includes paintings from McMaster’s permanent collection and artifacts from the time period to recreate an imaginary viewing interior portal.  On one side of the installation, for example, a 16th century Dutch studio is illuminated by candle light.  It is much like that used by renowned artist Johannes Vermeer’s studio in the mid 17th century, when he was painting The Astronomer

“We are very excited to be hosting this collaborative installation,” says Carol Podedworny, director and chief curator of the McMaster Museum of Art. “To have watched these two individuals go back and forth, suggest ideas from their respective disciplines, and then come together so fluidly has been fantastic. This merging of the arts and sciences shows how visual culture impacts our lives, which we hope to inspire at the Museum.”


Light Echo runs in the Panabaker Gallery at the McMaster Museum of Art from September 17 to October 31. For more information, please visit




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Michelle Donovan

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Jane Christmas

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McMaster University

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