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Book review: “Picturing The Cosmos – Hubble Space Telescope Images and The Astronomical Sublime”


Although astronomers and non-astronomers alike all now acknowledge that the Hubble Space Telescope has revolutionised astronomy, and enriched many aspects of our lives with its spectacular science and beautiful images, it didn’t start well. When the first images beamed back from the orbiting observatory appeared on monitors, the scientists viewing them, who had been looking forward to letting out great whoops of joy, could only let out heavy sighs of despair. The images were blurred. They were no better than pictures taken by ground-based instruments – in fact, they looked worse, as if taken through a camera with grease smeared over the front of its lens. They were soft focus snaps of the universe instead of High Definition museum quality portraits. It must have been heartbreaking for the telescope’s team to hear it described as “One giant squint for Mankind”…

Fast forward many years to the present, and “Hubble” is no longer shorthand for technical failure and managerial cock-up. For what seems like a lifetime it has been sending back unbelievably beautiful images of stars, nebulae and galaxies, many of which are so lovely, so head-shakingly stunning they could indeed be hung on the wall of an art gallery –

Actually, it hasn’t. Sent back those stunning images, I mean. The images we see in our magazines and books, on websites, everywhere, are not the images the telescope sends back. They’re the ‘creations’ of men and women on the ground, data alchemists who take the telescope’s raw images and turn them into something… magical.

That’s not to say they’re fake, not at all. Every Hubble image you see in SKY & TELESCOPE, or on Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog or on Nancy Atkinson’s Universe Today website is a real portrait of the universe. They just didn’t start out, or come back from space, that way.

The story of how how Hubble’s raw data is turned into the stunning images we see so often today is told by Elizabeth A Kessler in her new book “Picturing The Cosmos – Hubble Space Telescope Images and The Astronomical Sublime”. How the images are taken, how they’re sent back to Earth, and how they’re processed is all described in fascinating detail by an author who is genuinely fascinated by both the process itself and the people involved in it.

But that’s only part of the book. “Picturing The Cosmos” also looks at how Hubble images are more than just scientific datasets, graphical representations of distant astronomical objects. Kessler explains how they are in the same grand tradition as the famous and gorgeous paintings by artists such as Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt and the photographs of Ansell Adams – portraits of exotic, alien places that seem too beautiful, too dramatic to possibly be real, but really are.

When I was offered this book for review I thought it sounded very interesting, and its theme very familiar, because I’ve been saying for years and years, in my Outreach talks, that Hubble’s images are not just pretty space pictures, and give us much more than mere information about the swirling gas clouds, sparkling star clusters and catherine wheel galaxies they show so well. I’ve been insisting for years what Kessler asserts in her book – that Hubble images are works of art in their own right, and as such can and do inspire and move us in ways no other scientific images possibly can. It was delightful  (and a relief!) to learn that I’m not the only person who thinks and feels that way!

When explaining the technicalities of taking and processing Hubble images, and the background to the telescope’s construction, this book is pretty straightforward and factual. But it also provides fascinating insights into what goes on “behind the scenes” with Hubble. It was eye-opening to read, for example, how some astronomers were initially dismissive of Hubble’s images, sneering at them as just “pretty pictures”, until the world went nuts over the now famous “Pillars of Creation”image and then were suddenly converted. Funny that.

One of my favourite sections of the book, “Translating Data“, follows the “creation” of a Hubble image, from raw data being taken to its eventual publication and distribution online. As an amateur image creator myself – if you read any of my blogs you’ll already know that I love taking the raw images sent back by the Mars rovers and turning them into coloured landscapes, mosaics or 3D anaglyphs using image processing software like Photoshop and Stereophoto Maker – it was fascinating to follow  the process, and gave me a new appreciation for the image processing teams who turn the telescope’s black and white, contrasty ‘snapshots’ into the glorious pictures we all enjoy so much.

Away from the technical side of things, this is a very deep and thoughtful book, considering the symbolism and cultural significance of Hubble’s images, and I definitely loved those chapters the most. It was an absolute joy reading Kessler’s thoughts connecting Hubble to Bierstadt, Moran and Adams, connections I’ve made before. Kessler embraces the idea of Hubble’s photographic subjects being portraits of romantic landscapes and exciting frontiers, not just simple clumps of gas, scatterings of stars or lumps of rock.

This is definitely not a “popular science” book that you can dip in to when you’ve got a few minutes to spare. Nor is it yet another book of Hubble photographs, although obviously it contains some. If you want one of those, then go down to your local discount bookshop (or bookstore, hi again, US readers!) and you’ll find several of those there, leaning against a wall, the size of a paving stone and just as heavy. No. This is a detailed description of the technical challenges and triumphs of Hubble (there’s a fascinating section dealing with what ‘false colour’ means and why it is so useful to astronomers), and a thoughtful examination of what the telescope’s beautiful images actually mean on a much deeper level.

“Picturing The Cosmos” pulls off that ever so tricky trick of combining cold, hard technical explanations and descriptions with a thoughtful, emotional examination of the aesthetic appeal and cultural significance of astronomy. I have no other books anything like it standing on my sagging bookshelves over there, and I can definitely recommend it to any science-savvy reader who wants to know how hard data becomes “pretty pictures”, and to anyone who has ever looked at a Hubble photo and simply thought “That’s beautiful…”.

“PICTURING THE COSMOS – Hubble Space Telescope Images and The Astronomical Sublime”

Elizabeth A Kessler

University of Minnesota Press

ISBN 978-0-8166-7957-7



One Response

  1. This is another book on my list to read – your review confirms that it belongs high on that list. Love the Dalek, too. 🙂

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