Skip to content. | Skip to navigation

Personal tools

Navigation

Picturing the Cosmos

Hubble Space Telescope Images and the Astronomical Sublime

2012
Author:

Elizabeth A. Kessler

Picturing the Cosmos

A revealing look at the Romantic impulse behind the Hubble telescope’s awe-inspiring deep space images

Picturing the Cosmos examines the Hubble’s deep space images, highlighting the resemblance they bear to nineteenth-century paintings and photographs of the American West and their invocation of the visual language of the sublime. Strikingly illustrated, this book reveals the scientific, aesthetic, and cultural significance of the Hubble pictures, offering an understanding of how they shape our ideas about the cosmos.

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

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 one.

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, this book 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

Elizabeth A. Kessler teaches at Stanford University. She has been awarded fellowships by the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum and Stanford University.

Picturing the Cosmos

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

Elizabeth A. Kessler’s Picturing the Cosmos is a delightful combination of aesthetic and scientific investigation. Everyone knows that the images produced by the Hubble Telescope are amazingly beautiful, far in excess of their scientific utility. But the precise nature of that beauty, and its relation to nineteenth century renderings of the American frontier, has been obscure up until now. 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

Readers of this book will never view Hubble images the same way again.

Library Journal

Strikingly detailed. . . Perhaps the biggest surprise here is how closely the (Hubble Heritage Project) team adheres to romantic notions of grandeur, with pictures often resembling the sweeping vistas produced by Ansel Adams.

Booklist

Picturing the Cosmos brings a new angle to the images of space captured by the Hubble, analyzing them as ranking with other romantic landscapes. Though NASA’s sole purpose was to photograph the cosmos, these “pretty pictures” have become works of art in their own right.

ForeWord

Kessler ponders the ways that the transmissions from the telescope are used and what they represent to the public as a window into the mysteries of space. The images, gathered and edited by astronomers, show many of the mysteries of the universe. These pictures are more then just amazing shots of natural phenomena, they represent our connection with the unknown.

MFA Not MBA.com

The imaginative aspect of Picturing the Cosmos comes to play as Kessler links those photographs of whirlpools of stars with the majestic mesas of the American West by 19th century Romantic painters.

Shepherd Express

[Kessler’s] comparisons of Hubble images to western landscapes, along with interviews with astronomers about developing images and winning over colleagues, will be of particular interest to those interested in the intersection between science and art.

American Scientist

A gorgeously-illustrated and thoughtful new academic book. An analysis of space pictures unlike anything you've ever read before.

io9

Picturing the Cosmos is both an art and a science book, but the emphasis is clearly on the art. These visions are gorgeous, and their similarities to the paintings of the Romantics, and of the Old West in particular are highly intriguing. Picturing the Cosmos is an exquisite-looking and very thought-provoking book.

BlogCritics.org

Picturing the Cosmos is not just a book about pictures taken by a space telescope, it’s a philosophical exploration of meaning and beauty. In an era were so much information goes by so fast, we need people to remind us not to just stop and smell the roses, but to stop and wonder at the universe, too.

PopMatters.com

Picturing the Cosmos 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.

Quest

Picturing the Cosmos

Contents


Abbreviations

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


Acknowledgments
Notes
Bibliography
Index