Development & Alumni Relations Office 


3 May 2018

Academics from Queen’s have launched a new, interactive exhibition – Marvelling at the Skies: Anglo-Saxon Comets and the Quest for Planet 9 – exploring mankind’s understanding of the cosmos in the Middle Ages, and asking whether it provides further clues on the whereabouts of the hypothetical ‘Planet Nine’.

A public lecture and launch will be held today (Wednesday, 2 May) from 7pm– 9pm at the Ulster Museum on Stranmillis Road in Belfast. Running until Sunday 3 June 2018, the exhibition has also been selected to be presented in London at the first British Academy Summer Festival in June, as one of the best funded research projects in the UK.

It is part of an interdisciplinary research project led by Senior Lecturer Dr Marilina Cesario from the School of Arts, English and Languages and Dr Pedro Lacerda, Lecturer from the School of Maths and Physics at Queen’s, entitled: Before and after Halley: Medieval Visions of Modern Science.

Dr Cesario was one of six researchers from across the UK to win and receive an APEX award, funded by the Leverhulme Trust and the UK’s leading academies including; the British Academy, the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Engineering for cross- disciplinary research excellence.

Speaking about the research project ahead of the exhibition launch Dr Cesario said: “This research project renegotiates the meaning and importance of medieval science and demonstrates how medieval records of comets can help test the theory of the existence of the elusive ‘Planet Nine. Looking at records of comets in Old English, Latin, Old Irish and Russian texts we aim to show that the early medieval people actually recorded genuine astronomical observations, reflecting their interest in cosmology and understanding of the heavens.

“The idea for this study came about from the strong desire to challenge the common assumption and perceived lack of scientific enquiry in the early Middle Ages, or commonly referred to as ‘Dark Ages’. This was the spark that ignited the intellectual collaboration between a medievalist and an astronomer.”

This ground-breaking project relied on up-to-date scientific tools to demonstrate the importance of astronomy and scientific thought in early medieval Europe and its reality in the history of science.

“By combining historical and scientific approaches, working in collaboration with my colleague Dr Pedro Lacerda, an astrophysicist and expert on comets and the solar system at Queen’s, this novel study crosses traditional disciplinary boundaries and extends research into new creative and exciting directions,” Dr Cesario continued.

Dr Lacerda, commented: “It is fantastic to be able to use data which is about one thousand years old to investigate a current theory. To me, this is one of the most fascinating aspects of our project.

“Any strong indication that a ‘Planet Nine’ is required to fit the comet sightings recorded in the Middle Ages will be a unique result and will certainly have a remarkable impact on our understanding of the solar system.”

The exhibition combines records of comets from Anglo-Saxon sources with contemporary images of comets (from NASA, the New York Times and The Northern Ireland Amateur Astronomy Society (NIAAS) and take visitors on a cosmic journey from the earliest contemporary description of a comet in England in the year 891 under the period of Alfred the Great, to the sighting of a hazy green-hued comet Lovejoy in 2013.

Comets have always evoked feelings of awe and terror in the beholders. Seen as both objects of study and omens of war, pestilence, famines, death of kings and fall of kingdoms, they appear frequently in historical and visual accounts from the 9th to the 12th centuries alongside important events.

Known to the Anglo-Saxons as the 'long-haired stars' (feaxeda), the well-known comet of 1066, depicted in the famous 11th-century Bayeux Tapestry, and described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as 'a sign in the skies such as had never been seen before' came to be understood as a portent heralding the end of the English dynasty at the hands of the Normans.

The exhibition, which will be accompanied by music inspired by comets orbits and sound of the spheres, is free, open to the public and suitable for all ages. It runs until Sunday, 3 June.

For more information, please visit the University’s website.

Media inquiries to Zara McBrearty at Queen's Communications Office on telephone: +44 (0)28 9097 3259. 

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