Wednesday’s Book Review: “Picturing the Cosmos”

Picturing the CosmosPicturing the Cosmos: Hubble Space Telescope Images and the Astronomical Sublime. By Elizabeth A. Kessler. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. Abbreviations, acknowledgments, notes, illustrations, bibliography, index. ISBN: 978-0-8166-7957-7. Paperback, $29.95 USD.

There is no astronomical instrument better known worldwide than the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), deployed in 1990. Initially viewed as a failure because of a flawed mirror, in December 1993 NASA launched the shuttle Endeavour on a repair mission to insert corrective equipment into the telescope and to ser­vice other instruments. During a ­week-­long mission, Endeavour’s astronauts conducted a record five spacewalks and successfully completed all programmed repairs to the telescope. The first reports from the newly repaired HST indicated that the images being returned thereafter ­were more than an order of magnitude (10 times) greater than those obtained before. The result has been enormously important to scientific understanding of the cosmos. Because of the servicing mission, the HST dominated space science activities throughout the next year. The results from Hubble touched on some of the most fundamental astronomical questions of the twentieth century, including the existence of black holes and the age of the uni­ver­se. Four additional servicing missions, the last in 2010, extended the life of the telescope through to the present. The story of HST is well known, and its scientific findings have been both effectively communicated and transformative for both the science community and the broader public.

Scientific discoveries have also continued to the present. For instance, scientists using the HST obtained the clearest images yet of galaxies that formed when the uni­verse was a fraction of its current age. These pictures provided the first clues to the historical develop­­ment of galaxies and suggested that elliptical galaxies developed remarkably rapidly into their present shapes. However, spiral galaxies that existed in large clusters evolved over a much longer ­pe­riod—the majority ­were built and then torn apart by dynamic processes in a restless uni­ver­se. The HST also discovered a new dark spot on Neptune, imaged the Eagle nebula in search of information about star formation, and observed the spectacular crash of Comet ­Shoemaker-­Levy 9 into the planet Jupiter in 1994.

The telescope has documented in colorful detail the births and deaths of bright celestial objects. It provided visual proof that pancake-shaped dust disks around young stars are common, suggesting that the raw materials for planet formation are in place. The orbiting telescope showed for the first time that jets of material rising from embryonic stars emanate from the centers of disks of dust and gas, thus turning what was previously merely theory into an observed reality. It also monitored Supernova 1987A, the closest exploding star in four centuries, providing for the first time pictures of a collision between a wave of material ejected from the doomed star and a ring of matter surrounding it. In the next decade astronomers expect even more material to hit the ring, illuminating the surrounding material, and thereby literally throwing light on the exploding star’s history.

As important as these discoveries have been Elizabeth A. Kessler’s book, Picturing the Cosmos: Hubble Space Telescope Images and the Astronomical Sublime, does not attempt to retell this well known story. Instead she focuses on the stunning imagery produced by the Hubble Space Telescope, especially those massaged and issued by the Hubble Heritage Project, which has ensured the place of the telescope as a world-class scientific facility. Kessler approaches this imagery as an historian of art, and analyzes it as an aesthetic work, finding that there is a close relationship between this Hubble imagery and earlier art and photography from expeditions into the American West. The creative tension between reality and the sublime, between the mundane and the elegant, interest her most. She draws explicit comparisons of Hubble imagery with the art of Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, as well as the photography of Ansel Adams. She might just as easily have compared HST images with those taken by Frank Hurley on the expedition of Ernst Shackleton during the Antarctic expedition of the Endurance.

Like the efforts to document exploring expeditions in the past through visual means, the HST images were not always about aesthetics. In such scientific activities visual representations have always been foremost about knowledge discovery. The scientists who are involved are dedicated to this aspect of the effort and if they care at all about aesthetics that is always a decidedly secondary priority. Kessler addresses how those seeking aesthetically pleasing imagery had to negotiate, and in some cases argue, with the scientists for the right to expend precious resources enhancing and releasing beautiful imagery of the cosmos.

The success of the astronomical sublime, as Kessler calls it, depicted in Hubble imagery was not anticipated initially by those inside the program. It has proven, however, to be one of its most lasting aspects. As an example, when outgoing NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe announced the cancellation of a planned Hubble servicing mission in the aftermath of the Columbia accident, more than 8 million people flooded the e-mail boxes of public officials protesting the decision. This public outcry was based largely on the science achieved using HST, but also because of the beauty of the telescope’s imagery. It did not take long for the incoming administrator, Michael D. Griffin, to reverse that decision.

Kessler makes clear that the imagery of the Hubble Space Telescope effectively drew the connection between the majesty of the universe and the insignificance of the individual living on a minor planet in an unexceptional solar system on the edge of the Milky Way galaxy. But she also makes an important counterpoint: while the universe may be beyond human comprehension it is also strikingly accessible through these images from the Hubble Heritage Project.

Picturing the Cosmos: Hubble Space Telescope Images and the Astronomical Sublime is a superb work of history, merging the relationship between art and science into a meaningful whole. It is must reading for anyone interested in space science, the public understanding of science, and the power of the visual in modern society.

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