Picturing the Cosmos
The Hubble Space Telescope Images
And the Astronomical Sublime

Elizabeth A. Kessler
(University of Minnesota Press)
First you have to know that all the images produced from the Hubble space picture folks are fakes. Real fakes. You find out here in Picturing the Cosmos that the colors are fake, the size and shapes are fake, and the galaxies and nebulae can and are sometimes turned on their heads (where the hell is North when you are out there in the wilds of outer space?)

Then there are imperfections in the lenses, lights popping up without Hubble's specific permission, spots and beams that shouldn't be there: All these can be fiddled with by the scientist who is operating the control board over there at the Hubble Heritage Team (hereinafter referrred to as the HHT).

Then there are "rays" --- technically known as "diffraction spikes" --- that come wholly out of the blue ... I mean from the telescope itself. Sometimes these are blotted out; or, in some cases, to make the distant star or galaxy look more "realistic," they are sneaked in, even though they are "caused by the instrument." But, as the author states, "the symbolic association with a starry sky grants them aesthetic resonance."

    Sometimes members of the Team even cut and paste a diffraction spike from one side of the star to replace one that has been flawed by overexposed pixels.

Kessler emphasizes that what we are seeing is not a picture as would be created by your old-fashioned Kodak, but a shot from an electronic image-gathering machine, a digital camera. So most of these beautiful photos filling this beautiful book, "do not look like older photographs of the stars, nor are they anything like what can be seen in the sky on a dark night."

    Yet they appear to present the universe as one might see it, thus previewing what we imagine space explorers and tourists may experience when manned space travel extends humanity's reach beyond the earth's orbit.

"The appearance of the Hubble image depends on the careful choices of astronomers who assigned colors, adjusted contrast, and composed the images. Although attentive to the data that lie behind the images, through their decisions astronomers encourage a particular way of seeing the cosmos." Ms. Kessler asserts that this "particular way" can be traced back to the photographs of Ansel Adams, and, indeed, even further ... back to the mountain-and-valley western U. S. paintings from 150 years ago by the likes of Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstat. Picturing the Cosmos features some of those paintings which used dramatic color contrast and craggy surfaces to suggest the startling vistas of, for example, the Grand Canyon. The legend under Moran's "The Chasm of the Colorado" from 1873 - 1874 offers the idea that "The vast scale of the Grand Canyon was difficult to represent in a painting, just as it is challenging to frame an immense nebula within a digital imgge."

One of the most startling face-en-face is a reproduction of a photograph of the Eagle Nebula by David Malin (1979), all reds and blacks, contrasted with the Hubble images of 1995 from the same nebula. It is known to as "The Pillars of Creation," in which stair-step shapes turn up. These are not caused by the divine but come from the differences in resolution in one of the four sensors in Hubble's "Wide Field Planetary Camera 2."

The very act of cropping (and deciding which side is "up," giving "form," making the invisible visible) in itself creates a distortion, as does the decision on exactly which colors to use. Traditionally in astronomy drawings from the early days, blue represented heat, red cold. That tradition continues to this day, and is well represented in this book.

Take the commonly accepted image of the Whirlpool Galaxy. The HHP experimented with a variety of pinks and yellows which all comes out looking rather garish, like someone's slapdash dying of an Easter egg created by a kid with no sense of color at all (like me with my PAAS egg-dyes when I was about eight years old.) Thank God the Hubble Team decided to ditch the Whirlpool Easter Egg, using the more traditional blues, greens and greys. [See Fig 1.]

This is one of the finest of their artistic creations, for there are many works of art here ... but none so fine as their representation of the Whirlpool Galaxy, with its distinctive Yin-Yang shape. Evidently the center was a little dull in reality, so they gussied it up, gave it more pow! ... so it would look a little more --- how should we say it? --- a little more astronomical. It's a beaut. [For an idea of the arbitrary nature of all this, go to Google Images, and call up "Hubble Whirlpool Galaxy." You'll see a heap of different shades of color, along with the arbitrary placement of the neighboring galaxy: sometimes on top, sometimes below, sometimes cut out completely ... presumably because it just isn's as gorgeous as the galaxy as created by the Hubble Team.]

Speaking of beauts (and buttes) whoever made up the names for these babies was obviously out of their gourd. Or perhaps operating from a different planet, like Ixneria. The Bubble Nebula looks like a bunch of tadpoles to me, and the Tadpole Galaxy looks more like a PopTop pulled from my diet Coke can. Planetary nebula NGC 3132 was once called the Planetary Nebula which is fine with me, and then some dumbbell decided, no, it's looks like something you do your exercises with, so they named it the "Dumbbell" Nebula, even though it appears to me to be nothing but a gaseous cloud of fluff, cotton candy maybe. But can you imagine the Cotton Candy Nebula?

Or take the Cone Nebula: I guess I can see its cone-like features, but it looks more like a lamprey eel to those of us with a marine-ish sense of space, Kessler points out that "self-contained and individual objects such as whirlpools, eagles, crabs and the like [were names] given to nebulae based on similarities that arise when viewing the whole object with a less powerful telescope --- the pictures focus on small regions within larger objects." This doesn't help me at all when I look at the Keyhole Nebula (which, Kessler points out, has been turned upside-down by the Hubble people) or --- worst of all --- when trying to hone in on the Eagle Nebula. Better the Chicken Nebula: I can see the head of a chicken off there to the left and a begging dog off to the right and something a little more vile in the middle, I won't tell you what. But an eagle's aerie? Forget it.

It's all relative, I guess. The coming of the Hubble gave astronomers a chance to be a Renoir, or a Manet, or at worst, a Salvador Dali.

Of all the gorgeous images in Picturing the Cosmos, I have to admit that my favorite, next to the Sagitarius Star Cloud (seven jillion stars crowded together, barely fitting onto page 118 --- see Fig 2 above) is a corny one that appeared in 1944 in the old Life magazine. It's titled "Saturn as Seen from Titan." To this day I remember seeing it for the first time back then. For the first time I got some feeling for the immensity --- indeed, the rank spacious iciness --- of outer space, where a bleak snow-coated mountainous landscape could encapsulate a fine ring-and-shadow image of our most lovely planet.

One that beats dull earth by a mile.

--- Edna J. Lacey
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH