My Astronomical Romance

I saw this telescope image of the Horsehead Nebula (1500 light years from Earth) and the first thing I thought was: Elvis! Better than the second thing, which was: Blagojavich! Or the third: Andrew Jackson! But the fourth thing was a snippet-observation I recalled from somewhere, pointing out how the image processing and selection of all of those drop-dead amazing images we get from the Hubble Space Telescope is less about the raw truth of what’s out there than about the very cultural choices and traditions that guide our observer’s eye.

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It’s not often that aesthetics are considered in the study of science, but [University of Chicago grad student Elizabeth] Kessler maintains it is necessary if one is to fully understand the space telescope and its impact.

“There’s a lot of translation that occurs between the data the Hubble collects and the final images that are shared with the public,” Kessler explains. Translating raw data into the “pretty pictures” that have become a staple of newspaper front pages requires careful image processing.

Astronomers and image specialists strive for realistic representations of the cosmos, yet they make subjective choices regarding contrast, composition and color. The Hubble images are complex representations of the cosmos that balance both art and science. In that sense, as well as in their appearance and emotional impact, Kessler says they resemble 19th century Romantic landscape paintings, especially those of the American West.

“The aesthetic choices made result in a sense of majesty and wonder about nature and how spectacular it can be, just as the paintings of the American West did,” Kessler said. “The Hubble images are part of the Romantic landscape tradition. They fit that popular, familiar model of what the natural world should look like.”


from “Looking Through the Hubble Space Telescope with an Artist’s Eye,” Space Daily, 21 February 2005, images from Seedmagazine.com and Wikipedia

Originally published at culture-making.com.

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