International Building, Rockefeller Center Plaza
Fifth Avenue and 50th Street

Text and Photographs by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Natural History special issue

Part of City of Stars photo essay.

The Atlas sculture in front of the buildings of Rockefeller Center. The muscular figure is holding up a huge armillary sphere: three rings with astronomical figures on them.
Atlas (1936) by Lee Lawrie and Rene Chambellan.

Everyone knows that Atlas is big and strong and that his job is to hold up the world. That’s precisely what he is doing here in Art Deco splendor, all two tons of him. Like most depictions of Atlas, this one shows him carrying the world in the form of an armillary sphere. This north-south axis of this particular sphere points to the North Star as viewed from New York City. Laid across Atlas’s muscled shoulders is a wide, curved beam that displays a frieze of the traditional symbols for Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter (hidden behind Atlas’s thick neck), Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Adjacent to Earth (over Atlas’s right forearm) is a small crescent symbolizing the Moon. Affixed to one of the sphere’s rings are symbols for twelve constellations through which the Sun passes during the year. Apparently in a pinch for fresh imagery, artists continue to resort to this antiquated set of symbols, collectively known as the zodiac, when tasked with representing the universe.

Close up of Atlas, showing his head and torso, with the armillary rings on his shoulder with astronomical symbols.
Atlas (1936) by Lee Lawrie and Rene Chambellan.

The sculpture of Atlas and his armillary sphere was somehow conceived and designed without any reference to the planet Pluto, which was discovered and named in 1930. In this respect, the sculpture must have seemed embarrassingly outdated at its dedication in 1937. In recent years, however, a movement to demote little Pluto from planet status has been gaining strength. The reasons? Pluto shares many important physical properties with a newly discovered class of comets in orbit beyond Neptune. Atlas, it turns out, had scientific integrity all along.