Music of the Spheres: Self-Portrait

I had the good fortune last week to spend my Saturday painting with a group of teenage girls and astronomers. After exploring a variety of different astronomical images, we sat down to canvases and acrylic paints to create self-portraits based on celestial objects.

“Music of the Spheres” Astronomical self-portrait by Nancy Alima Ali

I’ve never really considered myself an artist but I do enjoy playing with paint, and over the years I’ve become less-judgmental about the art that I create. I’ve even come to perhaps appreciate my particular “style” of painting as being a unique expression of myself. Which, really, is the whole point anyway.

Still, it can be difficult for me to get started…making that first swipe of paint on a canvas feels like such a commitment. My tendency is to want to envision the final picture before I even start. This “backward design” approach has generally worked well for me in designing educational curricula where it is important to articulate what your goal is at the outset. But this time I decided to focus on the process rather than the product, and decided to play with the image “Earthrise.”

Image Credit: William Anders/NASA

Perhaps one of the most iconic photographs of all time, “Earthrise” was taken by the Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders while in orbit around the Moon. Looking back towards Earth, this photograph represents a radical shift in perspective – for the first time in human history, we were able to look back at our planet from out in space. Inspired by this astronomical “self-portrait”, I borrowed the image of an emerging semicircular planet to start my own painting. From there, the circles emerged as I let myself go with the flow, adding colors, details, and shapes without forethought. I was a little surprised at the end result, marveling at the explosion of color and movement in the intersecting spheres, tinged on the edges with inky black. I titled my painting “The Music of the Spheres.”

The concept of the music of the spheres is an ancient one, stemming from the belief that there is a perfect harmony between celestial bodies which is revealed in numbers, shapes, movements, angles and sounds. Melding mathematics, religion and philosophy, the Greek mathematician-mystic Pythagoras argued that the Sun, Moon and planets emit sounds which are inaudible to the human ear. Centuries later, this same idea spurred the astronomer Johannes Kepler on to discover the mathematical nature of the elliptical orbit of the planets around the Sun. Far from being just a romantic philosophical concept, data from celestial objects such as the Sun obtained from spacecraft can be translated into sound through a process called sonification. You can listen to examples of sonification of the Sun at

Tibetan Singing Bowl
Image Credit:

To me, the music of the spheres sounds very much like Tibetan singing bowls. I recently received a Nepalese brass bowl that resonates at the note G. The sound healer who gave me the bowl told me that this particular frequency represents the throat chakra.  According to Buddhist, Hindu and other belief systems, the chakras are spinning energy centers throughout our bodies which we use to metabolize energy and interact with others. The throat chakra, called Vishuddha in Sanskrit, metabolizes energy related to communication and self-expression. This brings me full circle to my astronomical self-portrait, Music of the Spheres, which to me is a visual communication of my attempt to integrate the various scientific and spiritual aspects of my Self.

Image Credit: Spirit Voyage


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