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Picturing the Cosmos: Hubble Space Telescope Images and the Astronomical Sublime Paperback – November 24, 2012
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Since its celebrated launch into orbit in 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope has yielded a cornucopia of observational data that has immeasurably benefited the fields of astronomy and cosmology. The strikingly detailed, colorful photos of whirling galaxies and murky nebulae have also captured the public’s imagination and sparked renewed enthusiasm for space exploration. According to Kessler, an authority on the visual culture of science, much of this “special effects” exhibitionism has been deliberate, as astronomers working for the Hubble Heritage Project have used computers to manipulate hue and contrast to create awe-inspiring images. Kessler looks over the shoulders of the project’s team leaders and describes the decision-making processes behind producing photos that are both aesthetically pleasing and scientifically accurate. Perhaps the biggest surprise here is how closely the team adheres to romantic notions of grandeur, with pictures often resembling the sweeping vistas produced by Ansel Adams. While Kessler’s work won’t replace those heavy coffee-table astronomy books that showcase Hubble’s best imagery, it will make readers more fully appreciate just what they’re looking at. --Carl Hays
"Picturing the Cosmos has helped me better understand what it is that fascinates me about the astronomical universe. Even though I've always loved to look directly at the night sky or at the wonders it holds with telescopes of many sizes and powers, reading here that ‘astronomy is about the pleasure of looking’ has revitalized this old habit and given it weight." —David H. DeVorkin, Senior Curator, Division of Space History, National Air and Space Museum
"This masterful book provides the authoritative account of why these images look the way they do and, more broadly, how human beings manage to represent the vastness of the cosmos to themselves." —W. J. T. Mitchell, author of Cloning Terror and Seeing through Race
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Scientific discoveries have also continued to the present. For instance, scientists using the HST obtained the clearest images yet of galaxies that formed when the universe was a fraction of its current age. These pictures provided the first clues to the historical development of galaxies and suggested that elliptical galaxies developed remarkably rapidly into their present shapes. However, spiral galaxies that existed in large clusters evolved over a much longer period--the majority were built and then torn apart by dynamic processes in a restless universe. The HST also discovered a new dark spot on Neptune, imaged the Eagle nebula in search of information about star formation, and observed the spectacular crash of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 into the planet Jupiter in 1994.
The telescope has documented in colorful detail the births and deaths of bright celestial objects. It provided visual proof that pancake-shaped dust disks around young stars are common, suggesting that the raw materials for planet formation are in place. The orbiting telescope showed for the first time that jets of material rising from embryonic stars emanate from the centers of disks of dust and gas, thus turning what was previously merely theory into an observed reality. It also monitored Supernova 1987A, the closest exploding star in four centuries, providing for the first time pictures of a collision between a wave of material ejected from the doomed star and a ring of matter surrounding it. In the next decade astronomers expect even more material to hit the ring, illuminating the surrounding material, and thereby literally throwing light on the exploding star's history.
As important as these discoveries have been Elizabeth A. Kessler's book, "Picturing the Cosmos: Hubble Space Telescope Images and the Astronomical Sublime," does not attempt to retell this well known story. Instead she focuses on the stunning imagery produced by the Hubble Space Telescope, especially those massaged and issued by the Hubble Heritage Project, which has ensured the place of the telescope as a world-class scientific facility. Kessler approaches this imagery as an historian of art, and analyzes it as an aesthetic work, finding that there is a close relationship between this Hubble imagery and earlier art and photography from expeditions into the American West. The creative tension between reality and the sublime, between the mundane and the elegant, interest her most. She draws explicit comparisons of Hubble imagery with the art of Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, as well as the photography of Ansel Adams. She might just as easily have compared HST images with those taken by Frank Hurley on the expedition of Ernst Shackleton during the Antarctic expedition of the Endurance.
Like the efforts to document exploring expeditions in the past through visual means, the HST images were not always about aesthetics. In such scientific activities visual representations have always been foremost about knowledge discovery. The scientists who are involved are dedicated to this aspect of the effort and if they care at all about aesthetics that is always a decidedly secondary priority. Kessler addresses how those seeking aesthetically pleasing imagery had to negotiate, and in some cases argue, with the scientists for the right to expend precious resources enhancing and releasing beautiful imagery of the cosmos.
The success of the astronomical sublime, as Kessler calls it, depicted in Hubble imagery was not anticipated initially by those inside the program. It has proven, however, to be one of its most lasting aspects. As an example, when outgoing NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe announced the cancellation of a planned Hubble servicing mission in the aftermath of the Columbia accident, more than 8 million people flooded the e-mail boxes of public officials protesting the decision. This public outcry was based largely on the science achieved using HST, but also because of the beauty of the telescope's imagery. It did not take long for the incoming administrator, Michael D. Griffin, to reverse that decision.
Kessler makes clear that the imagery of the Hubble Space Telescope effectively drew the connection between the majesty of the universe and the insignificance of the individual living on a minor planet in an unexceptional solar system on the edge of the Milky Way galaxy. But she also makes an important counterpoint: while the universe may be beyond human comprehension it is also strikingly accessible through these images from the Hubble Heritage Project.
"Picturing the Cosmos: Hubble Space Telescope Images and the Astronomical Sublime" is a superb work of history, merging the relationship between art and science into a meaningful whole. It is must reading for anyone interested in space science, the public understanding of science, and the power of the visual in modern society.
Human vision is a uniquely human trait, and actually personal to each person. Our vision is adapted to view a world illuminated by a star with the color temperature of our sun. (Thus colors can look very different under different illumination.) Even so, many variations of vision exist across the animal kingdom. Some animals lack color vision entirely. Some have two, compared to our three, color receptors. Some see ultraviolet light that we cannot.
Color vision varies among people, as well. Some, of course, are color blind. There are genetic variations in color receptors that lead to slightly different spectral sensitivities; some women actually have four different receptors. Not everyone's brain processes color in the same way, and cultural differences can affect color perception. There are some colors that my two eyes perceive slightly differently.
Recording of color is still another matter. Painters adjust their palette to achieve the effect they desire. I recall, years ago, being told astronomy was biased toward blue objects because Kodak emulsions had that bias. When we used film most consumers preferred film that recorded colors as more saturated than they really are. Digital cameras typically default to creating a more saturated image. It's what most people like to see in an image. Even if it's not truly accurate.
False color (and contrast) images are widely used in science and engineering because they allow you to visually examine wavelengths you can't actually see or accentuate features you want to study. Sometimes such images are striking, but certainly not "real" as a scene you could go somewhere and see.
For years NASA has released processed images that are striking, but don't represent something that can be seen in the real universe. Many of the Hubble images, beautiful as they are, do not represent something you could jump in a spaceship (if you had one), and fly off and see through a porthole. They do not represent something that could be seen with the naked human eye. This has long made me a bit queasy; NASA is advertising themselves with images of a cosmos that doesn't really exist, at least not as pictured.
Thus my interest in this book.
Kessler begins with a competent history of the Hubble program, including NASA's need for some good PR after the Challenger disaster and the discovery of the misfiguring of the Hubble primary mirror. (An amazing case, beyond the scope of this book, of bad engineering practice and an unwillingness to consider that there might, actually, be a problem.) She's not a scientist, so I can't be too harsh about little things like referring to the aberrations from the optical figure error as "noise" (which is a different problem).
(I assume that her assertion that the Hubble has recorded more information than any other telescope comes from the Hubble people she worked with. "Information" can be defined more than one way, but I wonder whether if you consider the total, fundamental information content recorded in every image taken by the Samuel Oschin telescope on Palomar, especially including the Palomar sky surveys, that that claim holds up.)
Because the Hubble records digital data, every image is constructed through processing (as are digital camera images). Generally astronomers reconstruct the data to support their scientific investigation, accentuating what they want to study, although I will agree from experience that "looks matter" when creating images from data. But NASA actually created a Hubble Heritage Project to produce pretty pictures to sell the agency to the public. (My words, Kessler is more tactful.)
Aesthetics rule, and they adjust color, contrast, and orientation, fix data flaws, and Photoshop to get the money shot. Colors, in particular, may have nothing to do with anything you would actually see. Spectral emission lines can be assigned colors in an image that don't align with what your eyes would perceive. Interestingly, the choose to leave in the star spikes because they are evocative. (Real stars aren't star shaped, they are round; the spikes that make them star shaped are due to diffraction within a telescope or other optical system. Stars in Hubble images have four spikes due to diffraction around the four struts that hold the secondary mirror in the telescope.)
Kessler sets the Hubble Heritage Project in a broader artistic, cultural, historical, and philosophical context by comparing its work to the painters and photographers who followed explorers into the wilds of the western United States, and returned east with evocative, although often romanticized, views of the landscapes they saw. Those images both helped to justify the expense of the explorations, and also created enthusiasm for the lands out there. That far I follow her. But there is a difference. Even if the images were exaggerated, someone could go out west and see reasonable facsimiles of those images. As an example, as much as Ansel Adams manipulated his prints in the darkroom, and worked in black and white, you can recognize Half Dome as Half Dome. Many (certainly not all) Hubble images show scenes that no human could ever see, even if transported to the right vantage point. It may be that the same ends are achieved, but the level of exaggeration is fundamentally different.
I think she gets a bit out of her depth when she moves on to the epistemological significance of the images. She suggests that they give us some understanding of the universe and our position in it. But to the extent that these pictures are the aesthetic creations of people they really represent looking into a mirror, not looking out into the cosmos. It would be a bit like Plato's cave dwellers seeing their own shadows and believing they were seeing the world outside the cave.
And her own epilogue, which I take to be about our frailty in the cosmos, strikes me as arguing against her epistemological argument.
That said, it is an interesting book, and worth the time to explore if the subject interests you.
By the way, although about pretty pictures, and while it contains a fair number, this is not a picture book. It's a scholarly work illustrated with a modest number of color images.
I was provided a copy for review by the publisher.