Looking through the Hubble Space Telescope with an artist's eye

02/10/05

Although derived from scientific data, the spectacular images from the Hubble Space Telescope circulate far beyond the scientific community. From postage stamps to the cover of Pearl Jam CDs, images of the heavens collected by the Hubble Space Telescope have become part of American culture, appreciated not only for their scientific content, but also for their raw emotional power.

It is that ability to move that art historian Elizabeth Kessler, a doctoral student in the University of Chicago's Committee on the History of Culture, is studying in her dissertation. Kessler will present some of her research from 1:45 to 3:15 p.m. Friday, Feb. 18, in Washington D.C., at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The discussion will take place in the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Congressional A room on the lobby level.

An honor typically reserved for scientists who have already earned their Ph.D.s, Kessler will join faculty from the University of California, Irvine, and the University of Maryland, Baltimore, as well as staff from the National Air and Space Museum and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as they present their work on "The Significance of the Hubble Space Telescope: Space Science Past, Present and Future."

Kessler's individual presentation is on "Hubble's Vision: Imaging, Aesthetics and Public Reception." With a background planted firmly in the humanities (she got her master's in art history from the University of Illinois, Chicago, and her B.A. in English from the University of Notre Dame), Kessler brings a unique perspective to the scientific conference. It's not often that aesthetics are considered in the study of science, but 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."

Kessler explains that the raw data that the Hubble transmits are black-and-white electronic pictures that show little definition or detail. To get from those unintelligible-to-the-average-person images to breathtaking magazine covers, a team of astronomers takes three raw Hubble filters – each filter records a different wavelength of light – combines them, and then interprets their meaning, applying color to each filtered image, removing streaks and cropping the image so it becomes a standard four-sided image.

Getting to the final photo, then, is a careful balancing act of combining scientifically relevant information with the desire for an attractive image that captures attention. As scientifically based as the photos are, there is a wide range of possible interpretations for each image. The interpretation often chosen, Kessler says, is one that suggests buttes, cliffs and erosion. Some look strikingly like pictures from Yellowstone National Park, or paintings of the old West by Albert Bierstadt or Thomas Moran, placing the Hubble images solidly in the romantic landscape tradition.

"Just like Bierstadt's or Moran's paintings, the hope here is that the final image will capture the feeling of awe and majesty and wonder about nature and how spectacular it can be," Kessler said. The goal in creating these images is as much about sparking an interest in science as it is about educating. "Scientists really want some kid to have a poster of this on their wall, as they did pictures of the moon. They want science to invoke a sense of frontier and discovery."

Kessler's work is more than just conjecture. She spent months interviewing members of the Hubble Heritage Project, the body of astronomers that creates the popular space telescope pictures. She has also worked closely with the scientific community. Last year Kessler earned a Guggenheim Fellowship from the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institute. While there she worked with David DeVorkin, one of the museum's curators and the moderator of the AAAS panel she is speaking on.

DeVorkin, now a supporter of Kessler's research, admits he was initially skeptical of the project. "She's done something that a lot of people have tried to do but have never been able to convince me is worthwhile," DeVorkin said. "She actually is on to something. She looks at how aesthetics enters in to what is obviously an effort to persuade. Just like 19th century artists accompanied Western exhibitions to persuade on the greatness of the West, these space telescope images are doing that for space. She's been able to link the two better than anybody else. I'm very excited about her work."

DeVorkin invited Kessler to work on a book he was writing for National Geographic with acclaimed science historian Robert W. Smith, The Hubble Space Telescope: Imaging the Universe (2004). "Beth's chapter was excellent," DeVorkin said. "She contributed significantly to the book."

DeVorkin said he invited Kessler to present at AAAS because she is able to use explanatory tools in her discipline to better illuminate phenomena in a completely different disciple. "This is a meeting of scientists," DeVorkin said, "and I think Beth's presentation will be very, very well received. That's about the top compliment I can give."

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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