Art and literature

Berger, Susanna, and Sara J. Schechner. “Observations on Niccolò Tornioli’s The Astronomers.” Annals of Science 78, no. 4 (2021): 1-45. Publisher's VersionAbstract

In the summer of 1645, the Oratorian Virgilio Spada (1596–1662) acquired a painting of a debate on astronomy by the Sienese artist Niccolò Tornioli (1598?–1651) and displayed it in the Palazzo Spada, the Roman residence of his older brother, Cardinal Bernardino Spada (1594–1661). Our discussion of The Astronomers questions some of the traditional identifications of its characters, although we cannot claim to have solved these figures’ identities and several remain a mystery. We do present new iconographic interpretations of particular scientific instruments, diagrams, and natural phenomena in the canvas. These novel readings occasionally remain conjectural in part because Tornioli represents these entities in a way that makes it clear that he did not fully comprehend them. The errors and obscurities in Tornioli’s painting lead us to two conclusions. First, that the erudite Virgilio Spada was unlikely to have been involved in the definition of the painting’s iconographies, as he would have objected to Tornioli’s crass mistakes and obscure imagery. Second, that these errors and indistinct details should be taken at face value, insofar as they accentuate the difficulties of astronomical observation. Beyond highlighting these challenges, we argue that the painting also visualizes techniques for countering them. Specifically, the canvas would have focused early modern observers’ attention on the edifying powers of civil conversations and communal observations with scientific instruments as well as images—including diagrams, celestial maps, and paintings.

Stork, David G., Christopher W. Tyler, and Sara J. Schechner. “Did Tim Paint a Vermeer?Journal of Imaging Science and Technology 64, no. 6 (2020): 60403-1 - 60403-12. Publisher's VersionAbstract

Tim’s Vermeer is a recent documentary feature film following engineer and self-described non-artist Tim Jenison’s extensive efforts to “paint a Vermeer” by means of a novel optical telescope and mirror-comparator procedure. His efforts were inspired by the controversial claim that some Western painters as early as 1420 secretly built optical devices and traced passages in projected images during the execution of some of their works, thereby achieving a novel and compelling “optical look.” We examine the proposed telescope optics in historical perspective, the difficulty and efficacy of the mirror comparator procedure as revealed by an independent artist/copyist’s attempts to replicate the procedure, and the particular visual evidence adduced in support of the comparator hypothesis. Specifically, we find that the luminance gradient along the rear wall in the duplicate painting is far from being rare or difficult to achieve, as was claimed; in fact, such gradients appear in numerous Old Master paintings that show no ancillary evidence of having been executed with optics. There is indeed a slight bowing of a single contour in the Vermeer original, which one would nominally expect to be straight; however, the optical explanation for this bowing implies numerous other lines would be similarly bowed, but in fact all are straight. The proposed method does not explain some of the most compelling “optical” evidence in Vermeer’s works, such as the small disk-shaped highlights, which appear like the blur spots that arise in an out-of-focus projected image. Likewise, the comparator-based explanations for the presence of pinprick holes at central vanishing points, and the presence of underdrawings and pentimenti in several of Vermeer’s works, have more plausible non-optical explanations. Finally, an independent experimental attempt to replicate the procedure fails overall to provide support for the telescope claim. In light of these considerations and evidence we conclude that it is extremely unlikely that Vermeer used the proposed mirror-comparator procedure.

Time of Our Lives: Sundials of the Adler Planetarium.
Schechner, Sara J. Time of Our Lives: Sundials of the Adler Planetarium.. Chicago: Adler Planetarium, 2019. Publisher's VersionAbstract


Time of Our Lives

Sundials of the Adler Planetarium

Sara J. Schechner


Published by the Adler Planetarium, with the support of the North American Sundial Society


The Adler Planetarium of Chicago has the best and most comprehensive collection of sundials and time-finding instruments in North America. Now many of these objects can be yours to explore. This volume encompasses a dazzling array of sundials, 268 in all, that date from the 15th to 20th centuries.

What makes this catalogue special is that it is written to engage non-specialists approaching sundials for the first time. Although the organizational logic is astronomical and mathematical, the primary Interpretive essays set the sundials into cultural and social context.

The catalogue divides sundials into classes according to the element of the Sun’s apparent motion that they track (e.g. hour-angle, altitude, azimuth, or a combination) and the orientation of the surfaces on which the hour lines are mathematically drawn. Within each chapter, the instruments are organized chronologically and by workshop, thereby giving readers insight into that type’s development over time and differences among makers. Technical object descriptions are supplemented by tables of divisions, gazetteers, saints’ days, weather forecasts, and in the case of polyhedral dials, the dial types, orientations, and hour systems drawn on every face. The tables offer a snapshot of the precision to which the maker aimed and the sundial’s complexity. Color photographs of each sundial show its overall appearance and details.

Chapter introductions go beyond mathematical descriptions of how each type works. Drawing upon research findings presented here for the first time, the essays offer insights into early production techniques, fads and fashions, social hierarchy among users, the impact of church and civil authorities, and the history of the sundial classes.

Throughout the ages, people’s sense of time has been influenced by their culture, politics, religion, labor, society, and geography. This catalogue offers concrete evidence, for every sundial in it embodies the time-related needs and values of its maker and users.

The catalogue includes a taxonomy of compass needles, glossary, bibliography, and index. It is hardcover, 488 pages, 9.75” x 11”.


Schechner, Sara J.These Are Not Your Mother’s Sundials: Or, Time and Astronomy’s Authority.” In The Science of Time 2016: Time in Astronomy & Society, Past, Present and Future, edited by Pavol Gabor Catherine Hohenkerk Kenneth Seidelmann and Elisa Arias, Ludwig Combrinck, 49-73. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing, 2017. schechner_978-3-319-59909-0_8.pdf
Schechner, Sara J.Tortoises Sail the Sea.” Wonders and Marvels, 2015, 31 July 2015. Publisher's VersionAbstract

Analysis of a Galapagos tortoise specimen marked "Ship Abigail," which belongs to Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, with remarks on Herman Melville, Charles Darwin, and whaling.  Online at Wonders and Marvels.

Stork, David G, Jacob Collins, Marco Duarte, Yasuo Furuichi, Dave Kale, Ashutosh Kulkarni, Dirk M Robinson, Sara J Schechner, Christopher W Tyler, and Nicholas C Williams. “Did Early Renaissance Painters Trace Optically Projected Images? The Conclusion of Independent Scientists, Art Historians, and Artists.” In Digital Imaging for Cultural Heritage Preservation: Analysis, Restoration, and Reconstruction of Ancient Artworks , 215-242. Boca Raton: CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group, 2011. Barnes & Noble proof copy of text
Schechner, Sara J.Astrolabes and Medieval Travel.” In The Art, Science, and Technology of Medieval Travel, 181-210. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2008. astrolabes_and_medieval_travel_2008_schechner.pdf
Schechner, Sara J., Jean-Francois Gauvin, and others. “Waywiser.” Online database of the Harvard Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, 2007. Link to Waywiser Abstract
Waywiser, is the online database of the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, Harvard University. It was first developed by Jean-François Gauvin and Sara J. Schechner in 2007--2008, and has since been updated in format by Juan Andres Leon and other museum staff. As curator of the Collection, Schechner is the contributor of thousands of object entries and biographies, particularly in the areas of astronomy, microscopy, optics, time finding, horology, surveying, navigation, psychology, and radio. Work on the database is ongoing. The database is named after an ancient instrument for measuring distance, also called a hodometer.
Surveyor using a waywiser
Schechner, Sara J. “Astrolabes and the Medieval Traveler.” AVISTA Forum Journal 16, no. 1/2 (2006): 30-32.
Schechner, Sara J. “Between Knowing and Doing: Mirrors and Their Imperfections in the Renaissance.” Early Science and Medicine 10 (2005): 137-162.
Schechner, Sara J. “Against the Hockney-Falco thesis: Glass and metal mirrors of the 15th century could not project undistorted images.” In Technical Digest: Frontiers in Optics 2004. Vol. 88th OSA Annual Meeting. Washington, DC: Optical Society of America, 2004.
Schechner, Sara J. “Art in the St. Petersburg Observatory: Putti with Scientific Instruments.” Bulletin of the Scientific Instrument Society 64 (2000): 2 (cover story).
Genuth, Sara Schechner. “Astrolabes: A Cross-Cultural and Social Perspective.” In Western Astrolabes, 2-25. Chicago: Adler Planetarium, 1998. astrolabes_cross-cultural_1998_schechner.pdf
Comets, Popular Culture, and the Birth of Modern Cosmology
Schechner, Sara J. Comets, Popular Culture, and the Birth of Modern Cosmology. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997. Princeton
Genuth, Sara Schechner. “Astronomical Imagery in a Passage of Homer.” Journal for the History of Astronomy 23 (1992): 293-298. Read at SAO/NASA Astrophysics Data System (ADS)
Genuth, Sara Schechner. “Bearded Stars in Science and Satire.” The Adler Planetarium Newsletter, 1986.
Genuth, Sara Schechner. “Books with Moving Parts.” The Adler Planetarium Newsletter, 1984.