Monday, October 28, 2013

The Man Who Illustrated the Heavens

McCain Library & Archives University of Southern Mississippi
         In the autumn of 1947, Hans Rey sat in his Greenwich Village studio trying to come up with an idea for the couple’s annual New Year’s card. Given his interest in astronomy, he toyed with the idea of a zodiac theme.  To aid in his design, Rey consulted an encyclopedia. The images he found recalled a long-held frustration—“the constellations were connected with meaningless lines” and “I thought there must be a better way.” Rey’s initial dissatisfaction with traditional astronomy guides began much earlier, in 1916, when he was drafted into the German army at age of eighteen. He passed away the long, dark nights on the front, gazing at the heavens using a “small astronomy book” that he carried in his knapsack as a guide. Those long nights, and the New Year’s card that recalled them, ultimately led to The Stars: A New Way to See Them, a beginner’s guide to the night sky published in 1952. A second book published two years later, Find the Constellations, presented a simplified version of the guide for children. 
Rey didn’t know much about celestial cartography or mechanics when he first decided to write books about the night sky. His research took four years, and in 1951, thirty-five years after his first frustrating attempts to find the constellations using his “small astronomy book” on the battlefields of Europe, Rey began to redraw the constellations “my own way.” He experimented,  connecting the stars the way children connect the dots to make a drawing. “I made the constellations clearer. I took exactly the same stars and connected them differently,” he once said.To learn more about Rey’s passion for astronomy, see “Hans Rey: The Man Who Illustrated the Heavens,” published in the October issue of Sky & Telescope magazine.