The radio image of Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s CP 1919 pulsar has found much fame since Bernard Sumner rediscovered the 1967 graphic in an astronomy book and suggested its use for the 1979 Peter Saville-designed Joy Division album Unknown Pleasures. That usage of it has been much imitated, applied and re-interpreted since and is arguably the most famous, if not culturally significant, usage of the stellargraph. There are, naturally, other instances of such imagery being co-opted from the source but it would be disingenuous of any contemporary designer to say they had no knowledge of it’s previous major appearance.
One recent addition to the neutron-star-chic canon is this Italian-made LovelySally shiny-look stretch skirt, “Pulsar 1919”. Available to mail-order apparently, and doubtless the potential Joy Division market never even occurred to them ;o) Though I somewhat suspect it may shortly, as word of this particular bum-hugger spreads.
I always thought the cover for Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division was an image of the Mariana Trench. Turns out it’s actually successive lines of pulses from the first pulsar ever discovered, CP 1919. Huh.
Peter Saville - art director, graphic designer, album artist and subsequent pulsar enthusiast. His first, and most notable work was the album cover for Joy Division’s “Unknown Pleasures” released in 1979. With such an elegantly mysterious topography of peaks and valleys, Saville took what was once a recording from the depths of outer-space, and made it into one of the most recognizable images in the earthy world of music.
I say ‘took’ and mean that very literally. See here, from the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy. Which notes this diagram as “Successive pulsae from the first pulsar discovered. CP 1919, are here superimposed vertically. The pulses occur every 1.337 seconds. They are caused by a rapidly-spinning neutron star.” Yes, it’s exactly the same image used for the album. But, it was absolutely perfect to begin with. (As acknowledged by both the artists and the artist-artist). They discovered an incredibly addictive aesthetic embedded in statistics and data. Every 1.337 seconds, 2,283 light years away, a neutron star was slappin the base.
Twelve years earlier, In July 1967 - astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered CP 1919, the first pulsar. She recorded the discovery alongside Anthony Hewish, her thesis advisor at the time. This was a first of its kind recording from outer space. It was like listening to a heartbeat from the depths of our universe, which led to the ambitious title “Little Green Man 1” or LGM-1. At that time, Bell Burnell and Hewish really did believe that its source was extraterrestrial life.
The cult following that surrounds this enigmatic image has been built on a similar foundation of myth and science. On the original record, the image simply appeared on the front, no description and no reference. Just like the initial discovery of LGM-1, there was a strange comforting resonance, a beautifully simplistic graphic that pulled you into the record. Whatever natural rhythm was captured in that diagram, it managed to blend a culture of senses. A unique marriage of science, music, and design.
(Above) A must watch short / trailer of sorts featuring Saville, as he recounts the process and discovery of creating the album cover.
This video short was put together by VISUALIZED. A collaboration and conference about “new language of data and its impact on culture.” Stay tuned here; for more.