Much drafting ink has been spilled to explore and explain Joy Division’s 1979 Unknown Pleasures Album Cover. Designed by Peter Saville, the soundwave cover is iconic and has inspired a slew of venerating knock-offs. What are the origins of this “pop culture pulsar?”
In a pair of articles in Scientific American, the first from 2015 and the second from 2020, celebrating 175 years of the magazine, Jen Christiansen takes us down the mole hole for an underground look at the riddle of this cosmic image. “As [Peter] Saville explains, the cover is directly linked to a figure in The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Astronomy (1977 edition)–a stacked plot of radio signals from a pulsar.”
But who “heard” the signal, and who designed the image? As Christiansen asks, “How does the physicality of a pulsar result in radio frequencies that translate into the famous stacked plot? What produced the data, how was it collected, who created the plot, and what is its significance?”
Jen Christiansen takes us along her journey to archives, conferences, and interviews. Finally, she finds another origin story. “Fifty years ago this month [September 2020] Harold D. Craft, Jr., published a remarkable black-on-white plot in his Ph.D. dissertation at Cornell University. A stacked series of jagged lines displayed incoming radio waves from pulsar CP1919, as detected at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Several months later the chart appeared as a full-page visualization in Scientific American, this time with white lines on a field of cyan.”
Check out the entire article here, with images and audio from Chistiansen’s interview with Dr. Craft – now Vice-President Emeritus at Cornell University.
“So, then the thought was, well let’s plot out a whole array of pulses, and see if we can see particular patterns in there. So that’s why, this one was the first I did – CP1919 – and you can pick out patterns in there if you really work at it….So then, I wrote the program so that I would block out when a hill here was high enough, then the stuff behind it would stay hidden. And it was pretty easy to do from a computer perspective. I also wrote a program that, instead of having these lined up vertically like this, I tilted them off at a slight angle like that so that it would look like you were looking up a hillside – which was aesthetically interesting and pleasing, but on the other hand, it just confused the whole issue.”
“So what happened, just in the process of putting together the thesis, I would give this [see image below] to a woman draftsperson in the space sciences building at Cornell, and she would then trace this stuff with india [sic] ink, and make a much darker image of it, so that it could be printed basically.”
I wonder who the “woman draftsperson in the space sciences building at Cornell” was?
Check out Tom Dunn’s post about a climate change mural designed by Saville and inspired by the original album cover, “No Music on a Dead Planet.” Then buy the puffer jacket.