Stars and space: Artist Dick Frizzell on the inspiration behind his new book

Artist Dick Frizzell’s lifetime fascination with stars and space has culminated in a new art-filled book that sets out to explain the mysteries of the what’s beyond planet Earth.

The sun is a star

This is a simple fact that a lot of people seem to find hard to grasp. How could it possibly be a star? It’s hot, it’s big, it’s yellow and it sits up there in a wide blue sky. Stars – surely? – are cold, small, white and hover about in the blackness of the night sky.

Not so! If you were able to rocket away to one of those stars, you would find that it would look like the sun and “our” sun would look like a star!

Dick Frizzell, Maui Captures the Sun, 2000, study for mural at Te Manawa Art Gallery, Palmerston North.

As far as we know (which isn’t very far, to be honest), the sun is the only star in the galaxy that’s orbited by a planet full of people calling it names. And here are some of those names, many of which start with S: Soleil, Sol, Sonne, Zon, Sole and Qorraxdu. That last one is from the Somali language. Our own Māori name, Rā, is pretty good. Strong and concise.

And while we’re naming things, here are the names of some of the other stars we can see from Earth: Sirius, Canopus, Vega, Procyon and Betelgeuse. These names were made up by ancient Greek or Arabic stargazers looking up at the same stars we look up at today. If there is anyone on the other side of the galaxy looking up at these same stars, they will have completely different names for them. They will also have another name for our star – if they’ve even noticed it yet, because they do have between 100 billion and 400 billion stars to sort through. Seriously. That’s how many stars there are out there, just in our Milky Way Galaxy.

Here’s another interesting fact: the light from these stars has taken so long to reach us that some of them are now dead and burnt out, but we don’t know it yet.

Bigger than big

Peter Kingston, Sacred House, 2008, oil and gouache on canvas, 1190 × 1340mm.

What else? Well, the sun is huge: hugely huge. It’s bigger than all the planets in our solar system put together, and some of those are mind-bogglingly big. Jupiter, for example, is bigger than all the mass of the remaining planets – and the sun could swallow Jupiter without a burp. Comparing the planet Earth with the sun is like comparing a grain of sand with a beach ball – a big beach ball.

If you could fly a plane around the sun at normal plane altitude, without getting burnt to a crisp, it would take you about eight months, whereas it takes only about two and a half days to fly around the Earth. And it takes 12 months for the Earth to get around the sun – a whole year. So, given that the Earth’s orbit is so much further out than our imaginary plane’s normal altitude, how come we only take four months longer to get around the sun?

It’s the speed. The Earth is zooming around the sun at 30 kilometres a second, or 110,000 kilometres an hour, while that Air New Zealand plane is only doing about 800 kilometres an hour. No contest really!

Moonlight is sunlight

Ani O’Neill, Crater – Creator, 2017, collection of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū, gift of the artist, 2019.

We know more or less how moonlight works: the light of the moon is actually the sun’s light reflecting off the moon’s face. But how does the moon come and go the way it does?

A curious arrangement of vectors and orbits means that the moon always presents the same face to the Earth at all times (and it’s curious that it does look like a face, isn’t it?). No matter what the time of day or night, the man in the moon never takes his eyes off the Earth.

No dark side

Dick Frizzell and Martin Poppelwell, The Sun is in the Window, 2021, silkscreen print.

Here’s a simple little parlour game that explains quite clearly how the phases of the moon happen and where that man goes. Ideally, the darker the parlour, the better this works.

Ask a friend to stand in the middle of the room, to represent the Earth. Now turn on a wall light or standard lamp on one side of the room — this represents the sun. You are the moon. Position yourself on the opposite side of the room, facing your friend and in a spot where she isn’t getting in the way of the light (I’ll explain in a minute how the Earth manages to do that).

Ask your friend (the Earth) what she sees, and of course she’ll tell you that she sees your face totally lit by the lamp. Now walk in an arc (a circle) to the left around your friend, all the while keeping your face towards her. Stop a quarter of the way round and ask again what she can see. Of course, she’ll tell you that half your face is now lit up. This is the moon’s first quarter.

Now – and this is the interesting bit – keep sidling in the circle until the back of your head is towards the lamp, and ask your friend what she sees now.

If my simple game has worked, she will see your face in complete shadow. (And this is why, despite the name of Pink Floyd’s famous album, there is no dark side of the moon.)

At this point in the game (and when “seen” against the night sky), you as the moon have “disappeared”.

The minute the moon does this disappearing act we call it the New Moon, which seems a bit contradictory but that’s the way it works. If you keep circling around your patient friend, the light will start to catch your face again until, eventually – in 15 days – you will arrive back where you started with full lamplight in your face.

You’ve just acted out all eight phases of the moon: full moon, not-so-full (called “gibbous” – isn’t that a great word?), first quarter, first crescent (going), new (gone), second crescent (coming), second quarter, gibbous again, and back to full.

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