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Picturing the Cosmos

Hubble Space Telescope Images and the Astronomical Sublime

Elizabeth A. Kessler

Publication Year: 2012

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.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-5


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pp. v-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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Introduction. Astronomy's Romantic Landscapes

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pp. 1-18

A dark cloud against a background of orange and blue reaches upward, stretching nearly to the top of the frame that contains it. Brightly backlit at its top and outlined throughout with a soft glow, the majesty and grace of the sinuous shape claim the viewer’s attention (Figure 1). ...

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1. The Astronomical Sublime and the American West

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pp. 19-68

For much of human history the visual experience of the heavens remained the same, dependent entirely on naked perception. Although light pollution has dimmed the brilliance of the stars, a look upward on a dark night reenacts this ancient and unmediated vision in which one sees white dots against a black sky, ...

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2. Ambivalent Astronomers and the Embrace of Hubble Images

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pp. 69-126

Based on the large number of Hubble images and their widespread circulation, it is easy to assume that their production was the telescope’s primary purpose. The elements fundamental to astronomical observing since the late nineteenth century— light, telescopes, and cameras—support such a conclusion. ...

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3. Translating Data into Pretty Pictures

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pp. 127-174

How do Hubble images represent the cosmos? In chapter 2, I argued that they are more than pretty pictures, and in fact have scientific and aesthetic value. I have referred several times to their status as digital images, and I explained very briefly how that can affect their appearance. ...

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4. From Unknown Frontiers to Familiar Places

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pp. 175-228

Astronomers hold complex attitudes toward images, and they have carefully crafted the images from the Hubble Space Telescope in a manner that satisfies their need for a scientifically valid representation of the data as well as their desire to evoke a particular aesthetic response. ...

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Epilogue. A Very Distant and Peaceful Star

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pp. 229-231

As way of closing, I would like to consider a short story by the writer and chemist Primo Levi. “A Tranquil Star” is, as its author suggests, “a fable that awakens echoes, and in which each of us can perceive distant reflections of himself and of the human race.”1 In a few concise pages, Levi tells the tale of a very distant and peaceful star around which several planets orbit. ...

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pp. 232-234

This book has been many years in the making, and I am grateful to all those who helped me along the way. It began as my dissertation in the History of Culture program at the University of Chicago, where I was encouraged and influenced by a number of professors, especially W. J. T. Mitchell, Robert S. Nelson, and Adrian Johns. ...


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pp. 235-255


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pp. 256-266


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pp. 267-279

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About the Author

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p. 289-289

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

E-ISBN-13: 9780816682492
E-ISBN-10: 0816682496
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816679560

Page Count: 276
Publication Year: 2012