Picturing the Cosmos: Hubble Space Telescope Images and the Astronomical Sublime. By Elizabeth A Kessler. £22.50/ $29.95. ISBN: 13-978-08166-79577
Anyone who has enjoyed the large-format, coffee-table books of recent years featuring expansive images from the Hubble Space Telescope might think they’re in for another-such treat with Picturing the Cosmos. They might just be left unsatisfied.
That isn’t because Elizabeth Kessler’s book is substandard, but because, for one thing, it’s a text-driven book (albeit one all that’s all about images). More to the point, it’s even arguable that Picturing the Cosmos could be called a science book. Although it contains discussions of what is or isn’t scientific, there are no detailed descriptions of the astrophysical processes involved in Hubble’s imaging targets.
With its focus on images, Picturing the Cosmos is more of an art philosophy book. What is presented to the reader is a cultural, social and historical thesis of images that pervade the American psyche (Kessler is a humanities professor) framed by the Hubble Space Telescope – which is NASA’s most famous unmanned mission.
Kessler draws strong parallels between Hubble’s evocative images of the cosmos, with the romantic early paintings of the great American Frontier. In doing so she unveils an ever-present anxiety within the Hubble imaging team: should they manipulate the raw data to be useful to scientists, or to be aesthetically pleasing to the public?
In the early days of Hubble the answer wasn’t obvious. Clearly this was a science mission, but continued funding depended on capturing the imagination of both the public and the US congress. This became even more an issue when it was realised, soon after Hubble’s launch, that it was sending back blurred images due to a faulty mirror (which was later corrected).
The seemingly-obvious answer would be to do two (or even several) versions of each image to satisfy scientists and public alike. But even here there are myriad choices to make and the demarcation isn’t clear anyway. Shouldn’t the public, for example, be presented with the science that their taxes paid for? What is scientific for an image anyway when scientists enhance particular features over another?
The press offices of NASA and the STScI (Space Telescope Science Institute) often invoked the aesthetic and romantic vision of the American landscape to describe the scientific processes occurring in each newly-imaged nebula, cluster, galaxy or star-forming region. This seemed to be a good compromise. Kessler explains how colour palettes were chosen to invoke this naturalistic sense of the Frontier – cementing in the public’s mind the idea of the Hubble mission as an extension of the American pioneer spirit. This latter aspect would of course be particular to the American public, whilst the rest of the world could still appreciate the nature-like colours.
In the chapter Ambivalent Astronomers, Kessler does touch on the scientific choices made by those working on Hubble images – something which the wider scientific community didn’t always agree on, on philosophical grounds (should images always be ‘spectacular’ or should they provide insights into physical processes?).
With her art credentials, Kessler’s largely interested in this philosophy and how the images are interpreted in their wider, cultural context. Often they take on a sort of spiritual dimension. One frustration of this chapter is that an evocative description of the Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula aren’t accompanied by an image (though it does appear earlier on in the book). It’s nice to refer to the image whilst reading the text.
Evocative, or rational? These two concepts still tussle with one another when it comes to Hubble images, though, after 20 years of continued success, the imaging specialists should take such matters more in their stride now. With the impact these images have had around the world, it is easy to forget that the Hubble Space Telescope is first and foremost a scientific mission. But without that aesthetic, ‘wow-factor’, books such as Kessler’s and those more scientific (but clearly coffee-table) tomes may never have even been commissioned in the first place.
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