Cover stories: Making the Babylonian tablet cover

Science  29 Jan 2016:
Vol. 351, Issue 6272, pp. 421
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf3211

Cover stories offer a look at the process behind the art on the cover: who made it, how it got made, and why.

Thinking about new covers is one of my favorite parts of my job at Science. When Keith Smith, the editor of this week’s paper on a Babylonian tablet describing the motion of Jupiter, suggested it as a possible cover subject, I imagined showing the tablet under a starry night sky including that brilliant planet.

Photo editor Christy Steele and I set out to bring this vision to life. First, we needed a replica of the tablet. Christy contacted the British Museum in London and arranged for the tablet to be 3D scanned. She then found a printing house in Washington, DC, that could re-create an exact copy of the tablet from the scan.

I contacted a California-based photographer skilled in employing the lighting- and time-exposure techniques needed for a dramatic cover image. Using a map of the darkest regions of the United States, we located potential areas to photograph in Nevada and Arizona, where light pollution was minimal. We verified the times when Jupiter would be visible, monitored long-term weather forecasts, and planned the “look” of the final photograph.

Then the surprises began. The Christmas holiday caused unexpected delays in delivering the 3D scan. The initial scan lacked a key information layer that “mapped” the texture of the tablet over its shape, but the museum quickly supplied that. The first tablet replicas (I ordered two) arrived, but a section of the area that we needed to photograph was missing—it had mistakenly been removed to clear out loose interior material. Next, an issue with printing machine slowed the remanufacture. These delays quickly consumed the extra shooting days built into our production schedule. Christy and I began thinking about alternatives, given the possibility of unpredictable winter weather.

As it turned out, our fears were justified. With one of the finished tablets in hand, the California-based photographer monitored the weather at our shooting locations for the single night we had to make the photograph. Unfortunately, a fast-moving storm swept in, obscuring the sky in both Nevada and Arizona.

As a fallback, we arranged for David Sharpe, a studio photographer located in Washington, DC, to photograph our second tablet. For the background, I located a spectacular night sky photograph that prominently featured Jupiter. It was taken in the Middle East, not far from where the original Babylonian measurements were likely made. Design director Beth Rakouskas worked with a composite of the tablet and sky photographs, arranging them into a single image that strikingly evokes the astronomical skill of the Babylonians.

Bill Douthitt, Photography Managing Editor at Science

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