Pictures of the Cosmos

Astronomy, Aesthetics and the Hubble Telescope

Dec. 21, 2012
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  They are beautiful, those images of the cosmos produced from photos taken from the orbiting Hubble Telescope. And those brightly colored pictures of spiraling galaxies against the expanse of infinity have permeated popular consciousness, replacing the old starry night backdrops of science-fiction movies and acting as a cosmic motif in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life.

But as Stanford University’s Elizabeth A. Kessler insists in Picturing the Cosmos: Hubble Space Telescope Images and the Astronomical Sublime (University of Minnesota Press), the familiar pictures aren’t simply the universe unfiltered but represent a conscious aesthetic among astronomers who “have come to favor saturated colors, high contrast, and rich detail as well as majestic compositions and dramatic lighting.” Conveying the awesomeness of endlessness in cropped, composed 2D images, the Hubble team has focused the perceptions of astronomers and played to the public. Those beautiful images have buoyed sagging popular interest in the space program, or at least the Space Telescope, as politicians compete to cut budgets.

The imaginative aspect of Picturing the Cosmos comes to play as Kessler links those photographs of whirlpools of stars with the majestic mesas of the American West by 19th century Romantic painters. Whether the Hubble photographers are entirely aware of the connection, most have grown up in a culture saturated by images of the Old West that found their way into the towering backdrops for many western movies and are part of the mythology of American identity. Kessler cites Frederick Jackson Turner’s seminal 1893 essay of the importance of conquering the frontier in transforming Europeans into Americans. This leads to Vannevar Bush’s Science, the Endless Frontier (1945), which offers science as the “largely unexplored hinterland for the pioneer who has the tools for the task.” Next stop, Gene Roddenberry: “Space—the final frontier.”

The 19th century paintings of the American West, their 20th century Technicolor descendents and the 21st century photos from the Hubble share an immersion in the sublime, a realm where awe and immensity engage the senses as well as the intellect. Art and science are both concerned with finding patterns, says Kessler, who reminds us of the “social conditions that surround the creation of scientific images.” To put it another way, the map can never be identical with the landscape and the picture is not the whole story, yet both help humanity navigate through a reality too complex—too infinite—to ever fully apprehend.



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