Spacescapes: Romantic aesthetics and the Hubble Space Telescope images
Hubble Space Telescope images have become some of the best known astronomical images, and they circulate far beyond the scientific community. They are appreciated not only for their scientific content, but also their visual characteristics and their emotional power. My dissertation is an interdisciplinary study of Hubble Space Telescope images in which I demonstrate the importance of translating the telescope's data into aesthetically pleasing images that communicate with non-scientists. I approach the Hubble Space Telescope images as a visual historian and consider their audience and reception, production, iconography, and the cultural associations conveyed through their appearance.
Although astronomers recognize the value of aesthetic images for promoting their scientific endeavors, an ambivalent attitude toward "pretty pictures" persists within the sciences and the effectiveness of using images to communicate with the public had to be reestablished over the telescope's history. Astronomers developed methods for translating rough data into more accessible forms that strive to balance scientific accuracy and artistic concerns; however, the results blur the lines between images as mimetic pictures and images as maps, leading to confusion in how they should be interpreted. Despite questions that arise around this issue, the aesthetic choices have the advantage of aligning the images with nineteenth-century Romantic landscapes of the American West. By utilizing a familiar form of the sublime, the astronomers evoke the emotions of awe and wonder. The nineteenth-century paintings and photographs also represent the frontier, a symbol that has been readily adopted for space travel. Although the galaxies, nebulae, and stars depicted in Hubble Space Telescope images are too distant for such journeys, the resemblance to the frontier landscapes promises the possibility of conquering them at least at the level of human understanding.
0585: Science history