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Picturing the Cosmos

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

Elizabeth A. Kessler
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 276
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  • Book Info
    Picturing the Cosmos
    Book Description:

    The vivid, dramatic images of distant stars and galaxies taken by the Hubble Space Telescope have come to define how we visualize the cosmos. In their immediacy and vibrancy, photographs from the Hubble show what future generations of space travelers might see should they venture beyond our solar system. But their brilliant hues and precise details are not simply products of the telescope's unprecedented orbital location and technologically advanced optical system. Rather, they result from a series of deliberate decisions made by the astronomers who convert raw data from the Hubble into spectacular pictures by assigning colors, adjusting contrast, and actively composing the images, balancing the desire for an aesthetically pleasing representation with the need for a scientifically valid one.

    InPicturing the Cosmos, Elizabeth A. Kessler examines the Hubble's deep space images, highlighting the remarkable resemblance they bear to nineteenth-century paintings and photographs of the American West and their invocation of the visual language of the sublime. Drawing on art history and the history of science, as well as interviews with astronomers who work on the Hubble Heritage Project, Kessler traces the ways that the sublime, with its inherent tension between reason and imagination, not only forms the appearance of the images, but also operates on other levels. The sublime informs the dual expression-numeric and pictorial-of digital data and underpins the relevance of the frontier for a new era of exploration performed by our instruments rather than our bodies. Through their engagement with the sublime the Hubble images are a complex act of translation that encourages an experience of the universe as simultaneously beyond humanity's grasp and within the reach of our knowledge.

    Strikingly illustrated with full-color images, this book reveals the scientific, aesthetic, and cultural significance of the Hubble pictures, offering a nuanced understanding of how they shape our ideas-and dreams-about the cosmos and our places within it.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-8249-2
    Subjects: Art & Art History, General Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-vii)
    (pp. 1-17)

    A dark cloud against a background of orange and blue reaches upward, stretching nearly to the top of the frame that contains it. Brightly backlit at its top and outlined throughout with a soft glow, the majesty and grace of the sinuous shape claim the viewer’s attention (Figure 1). But the closer one looks, the more difficult it becomes to classify what is pictured. Because of its wispy outline and top-heavy proportions, it appears that the form must be composed of something airy, something gaseous and insubstantial; however, its elongated profile resembles none of the clouds seen above the earth,...

    (pp. 19-67)

    For much of human history the visual experience of the heavens remained the same, dependent entirely on naked perception. Although light pollution has dimmed the brilliance of the stars, a look upward on a dark night reenacts this ancient and unmediated vision in which one sees white dots against a black sky, “lights in the firmament of the heavens” (Genesis 1:14), that offer few clues as to their distance, makeup, or relationship to the earth. When Galileo turned his telescope to the heavens in the seventeenth century he introduced another possible experience: a technologically mediated view. In the centuries since,...

    (pp. 69-125)

    Based on the large number of Hubble images and their widespread circulation, it is easy to assume that their production was the telescope’s primary purpose. The elements fundamental to astronomical observing since the late nineteenth century—light, telescopes, and cameras—support such a conclusion. Each seems grounded in an experience of vision. Light enables seeing, whether reflected off of objects or emitted by them. Telescopes extend that vision by allowing humans to see images of distant objects and scenes. Lenses, whether part of the optical system of an eye or of a telescope, project images. Photographic cameras record pictures. Since...

    (pp. 127-173)

    How do Hubble images represent the cosmos? In chapter 2, I argued that they are more than pretty pictures, and in fact have scientific and aesthetic value. I have referred several times to their status as digital images, and I explained very briefly how that can affect their appearance. However, more attention and more sophisticated analysis is necessary to properly address the topic. The medium of the Hubble images coupled with their relationship to science makes them into complex hybrids. Their digital makeup brings together two modes of representation, number and image. Working in concert, the telescope and cameras extend...

    (pp. 175-227)

    Astronomers hold complex attitudes toward images, and they have carefully crafted the images from the Hubble Space Telescope in a manner that satisfies their need for a scientifically valid representation of the data as well as their desire to evoke a particular aesthetic response. The resulting views of the cosmos engage both reason and the senses, and to grasp them fully we must allow the images to activate both faculties, thereby replaying the experience of the sublime.

    At this point I want to revisit the Romantic depiction of the American West and consider its symbolic value for the Hubble images....

    (pp. 229-231)

    As way of closing, I would like to consider a short story by the writer and chemist Primo Levi. “A Tranquil Star” is, as its author suggests, “a fable that awakens echoes, and in which each of us can perceive distant reflections of himself and of the human race.”¹ In a few concise pages, Levi tells the tale of a very distant and peaceful star around which several planets orbit. For whatever unknown reason, the star is not a typical one. In what he terms the “convulsive death-resurrection of stars,” it becomes a nova, exploding in a matter of hours...

    (pp. 232-234)
  11. NOTES
    (pp. 235-255)
    (pp. 256-266)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 267-279)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 280-280)