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The Inspiration of Astronomical Phenomena conference, which is slated for early January in Malta, sounds, to the lay observer, like a convention of Trekkies or alien abductees. It’s not, although the conference’s organizers—led by retired Chevy Chase physicist Rolf M. Sinclair—are sufficiently worried about fringe interlopers that they screen all applicants for seriousness of purpose before allowing them to register.

INSAP, as the conference is known, is a spinoff of archaeoastronomy; archaeoastronomy is, in turn, a cross-disciplinary amalgam of archaeology and astronomy that has, at least until recently, faced a good bit of difficulty winning the respect of hard-core scholars in both of those fields.

But archaeoastronomy is serious science: Practitioners, who number about a couple of hundred worldwide, seek to understand the degree to which ancient cultures knew about—and were influenced by—celestial bodies, such as the sun, the moon, the stars, comets, meteor showers, and the aurora borealis. The society that built Stonehenge and the Incas of Peru are frequent subjects, with archaeoastronomers seeking to understand how they tracked solstices and other seasonal events in the hope that they may glean insights about those societies’ calendars, social structures, and religions.

INSAP is slightly different; it focuses on the skies’ impact on arts and letters, rather than the social sciences. At January’s conference—the second INSAP—the keynote speaker will be UCLA professor Albert Boime, who will discuss Van Gogh’s painting Starry Night, about which Boime crunched the numbers a few years ago and discovered that Vince was quite an astute astronomical observer. Other papers at INSAP II will include “Astronomical Inspiration in The Rubayyat of Umar Khayyam” (submitted by Imad A. Ahmad of Bethesda), “The Cosmology of Edgar Allen Poe,” and “Possession and Inspiration: The Musician Between Day and Night.”

Sinclair, who spent three decades as a program officer with the National Science Foundation, precipitated the birth of INSAP in 1992 while visiting University of Arizona astronomer Raymond E. White. Sinclair and White, who had been organizing an international archaeoastronomy conference in Santa Fe, realized over Sunday breakfast that they needed to create some parameters for the gathering. Rather than excluding humanities scholars, they decided to set up a separate conference—INSAP I—to accommodate them. Everything fell into place once White’s friend George V. Coyne, a Jesuit astronomer with the Vatican observatory, booked the conference for the Mondo Migliore, a spectacular papal retreat outside of Rome. INSAP I attracted 80 attendees in the summer of 1994.

Sinclair, 69, says he’s amazed how rare it is for contemporary artists to deal with astronomical phenomena in more than a cursory fashion—the odd crescent moon to denote nighttime, for instance. While planning the conference, Sinclair visited a host of Washington museums and found precious few astronomically resonant pieces in their collections. Only “primitive” contemporary artists—untrained painters from outside the mainstream and, probably, out from under urban light pollution—tend to display much interest in exploring heavenly happenings, he says. “We’re much more divorced from the sky,” he says. “Camping in the Southwest, it’s different. You have good horizons. It’s so much more dramatic. You stop taking it for granted out there.”—Louis Jacobson