Picturing the Cosmos: Hubble Space Telescope Images and the Astronomical Sublime

Elizabeth A Kessler

Puts famous HST images like the “Pillars of Creation” in the context of the Romantic sublime in general, and the exploration and depiction of the American West in particular. There are plenty of interesting details along the way: the ambivalent attitude of academic astronomers towards images aimed at public consumption (“pretty pictures”), the history of the space telescope and how it was promoted, and the convergence of the Western and astronomical sublime which took place when great American observatories were established in beautiful and (at the time) remote mountaintop locations.

The Pillars of Creation
The heart of the book is the account of how aesthetically-pleasing HST images are generated from raw data. The colour scheme of “Pillars of Creation” came from assigning red, green and blue to particular sulfur, hydrogen and oxygen ionization states and doesn’t correspond to what the Eagle Nebula would look like if you were close to it: but this image was so popular that its palette has become part of the standard vocabulary for other pictures of nebulae. Imaging artifacts such as the diffraction spikes around bright stars are now so familiar that they’re not removed, or even enhanced.

The style is a little plodding at times, reflecting the book’s origin as a dissertation, but it’s definitely worth a read if you’re interested in the intersection of art and science, and the reproductions of HST images are beautiful.


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