'Picturing the Cosmos' Reveals the Hidden Art in Hubble's Images

by Daniel Rasmus

26 March 2013

Some see stars and gas and dust – mere representations of an underlying physics. Some imagine proof of a creator's hand. Others, like Elizabeth Kessler, see the universe as both art and canvas.
NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STSCI/AURA) 
cover art

Picturing the Cosmos-Hubble Space Telescope Images and the Astronomical Sublime

Elizabeth Kessler

(University of Minnesota Press)
US: Dec 2012

We are attracted to images of the universe for many reasons. The proof that our parochial neighborhood is but a fragment of unimaginable vastness humbles some. Others see stars and gas and dust – mere representations of an underlying physics. Some imagine proof of a creator’s hand. Others, like Elizabeth Kessler, see the universe as both art and canvas.

When the Hubble Space Telescope was launched on 24 April 1990, its multi-camera approach to near-earth orbit astronomy was innovative, and the results, highly anticipated. With its lenses free of atmospheric distortion and the increasing effects of light and other pollutants, Hubble could take human perception to nearly inconceivable distances in both space and time.

It would be easy enough to publish a coffee table book of Hubble Space Telescope images with a few captions that explained what one was looking at, and let the images speak mostly for themselves. The great burning blues and deep blacks, the bleeding oranges and screeching yellows. The myriad shapes of astronomical bodies presented as scientific fact. However, that’s not Kessler’s approach.

In Picturing the Cosmos, Kessler, explores the results of the Hubble Heritage Foundation’s work to transform Hubble’s data feeds into inspiring images – and through that work she seeks to define a 21st century aesthetic that combines big data with big beauty.

Picturing the Cosmos will be appreciated by the science-minded for its fact-based approach, but it will also prove a valuable tool for artists seeking to understand the process behind transforming Hubble’s captured bits into inspired images. As modern photography and artwork more often begins and ends in the digital realm, those who have spent time correcting for Hubble’s deficiencies and enhancing its cosmic ray damaged feeds have a thing or two to teach their audience. Kessler also documents how some images were serendipitous outcomes of experiments with no imaging objective at all, providing the science historian with value, as well.

Unlike some books by academics who overly organizing and compartmentalize, Picturing the Cosmos presents a rather open landscape in four long chapters. Copious footnotes substantiate the well-researched work. Because of the very technical nature of instruments, and the number of universities mentioned, Kessler choose to abbreviate many things (all listed at the front of the book under Abbreviations). I found these abbreviations the only interruptions in her otherwise flowing narrative.

For people in New York or Philadelphia in the early days of Western Expansion, painting from far off places conveyed the depth of the Grand Canyon and the enormity of the Giant Sequoia in ways that fledgling photography could not. Through analogy, and directly through the published images, Picturing the Cosmos seeks to instill a similar sense of wonder to a people whose planet in some ways, has become rather small. Kessler’s insight into the visual limitations of digital astronomy and how artists and scientists collaborate to produce images of astonishing beauty attempt, and I think succeed, to instill a sense of adventure to its readers. Like early painters of the West so often did, the interpreters of Hubble’s images bring artistic license to their work, not to distort the truth, but to reveal it.

Kessler states toward the end of Picturing the Cosmos , “Through their appropriation of the aesthetics of the sublime, the Hubble images invite us to see the cosmos as vast, wondrous, and awe inspiring, while also proposing that it is not as distant and alien as one might assume. The human mind can come to know and understand the universe.”

Kessler creates historical, scientific and aesthetic context for Hubble. With so much of science being outsourced, discoveries now arrive as intellectual property, owned and proprietary to those who funded the work. Kessler reminds us of the value of publicly funded science and exploration, with new data dispensed freely and openly for appreciation and interpretation – where the impact of that data can reach far beyond the goals of its accumulators. In that way, Picturing the Cosmos becomes a public good as it documents Hubble’s contribution to the human condition, and humanity’s perspective of the cosmos.

For millennia, when average people looked toward the heavens, imaginations were limited to playfully seeking animal shapes in clouds, or transforming patterns of dots against the night sky into warriors or gods. With Hubble and its follow-on orbital observatories, the human eye can experience nebulae and galaxies, and clusters of galaxies, and imagine not just fluffy rabbits against a blue sky, or Orion rising in the East with his sword hilt firmly placed. With Hubble human beings can now imagine interstellar processes, cosmic strings vibrating to produce reality, or entire new species living, undoubtedly, elsewhere in this cosmic infrastructure. Or they can simply look in awe at shapes and colors and configurations for which the human mind holds no analog – and in seeing those images, reshape the human creative context.

Picturing the Cosmos is not just a book about pictures taken by a space telescope, it’s a philosophical exploration of meaning and beauty. In an era were so much information goes by so fast, we need people to remind us not to just stop and smell the roses, but to stop and wonder at the universe, too.

Picturing the Cosmos-Hubble Space Telescope Images and the Astronomical Sublime


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