280 pages, 59 colour plates
The vivid, dramatic images of distant stars and galaxies taken by the Hubble Space Telescope have come to define how we visualize the cosmos. In their immediacy and vibrancy, photographs from the Hubble show what future generations of space travelers might see should they venture beyond our solar system. But their brilliant hues and precise details are not simply products of the telescope's unprecedented orbital location and technologically advanced optical system. Rather, they result from a series of deliberate decisions made by the astronomers who convert raw data from the Hubble into spectacular pictures by assigning colors, adjusting contrast, and actively composing the images, balancing the desire for an aesthetically pleasing representation with the need for a scientifically valid
In Picturing the Cosmos, Elizabeth A. Kessler examines the Hubble's deep space images, highlighting the remarkable resemblance they bear to nineteenth-century paintings and photographs of the American West and their invocation of the visual language of the sublime. Drawing on art history and the history of science, as well as interviews with astronomers who work on the Hubble Heritage Project, Kessler traces the ways that the sublime, with its inherent tension between reason and imagination, not only forms the appearance of the images, but also operates on other levels. The sublime informs the dual expression numeric and pictorial of digital data and underpins the relevance of the frontier for a new era of exploration performed by our instruments rather than our bodies. Through their engagement with the sublime the Hubble images are a complex act of translation that encourages an experience of the universe as simultaneously beyond humanity's grasp and within the reach of our knowledge.
Strikingly illustrated with full-color images, Picturing the Cosmos reveals the scientific, aesthetic, and cultural significance of the Hubble pictures, offering a nuanced understanding of how they shape our ideas and dreams about the cosmos and our places within it.
"Picturing the Cosmos has helped me better understand what it is that fascinates me about the astronomical universe. Even though I've always loved to look directly at the night sky or at the wonders it holds with telescopes of many sizes and powers, reading here that ‘astronomy is about the pleasure of looking’ has revitalized this old habit and given it weight."
- David H. DeVorkin, Senior Curator, Division of Space History, National Air and Space Museum
"This masterful book provides the authoritative account of why these images look the way they do and, more broadly, how human beings manage to represent the vastness of the cosmos to themselves."
- W. J. T. Mitchell, author of Cloning Terror and Seeing through Race
Introduction: Astronomy's Romantic Landscapes
1. The Astronomical Sublime and the American West
2. Ambivalent Astronomers and the Embrace of Hubble Images
3. Translating Data into Pretty Pictures
4. From Unknown Frontiers to Familiar Places
Epilogue: A Very Distant Peaceful Star
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Elizabeth A. Kessler teaches at Stanford University. She has been awarded fellowships by the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum and Stanford University.