Dec 182012

I think everyone will agree that some of the images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope are absolutely breathtaking.  The effect they have on the viewer is on one hand the result of their sheer visual impact, and on the other, the fact that the objects being imaged truly exist in this wondrous cosmos.  This fusion of evocative reality with artistic rendering is simply irresistible.

We sometimes forget that it took photography quite a while to come into its own as a bona fide art form.  As late as 1955, a critic for The New York Times still insisted on describing a photography exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art as merely “the folk art of our time.”  For those, however, who believe that all issues are ultimately decided by monetary value, the debate over photography was settled in 1993, when Christie’s sold an Alfred Stieglitz photo for $398,000 at an art auction.  Hubble images are in the public domain and therefore cannot be assigned a price.  Fortunately, money is not the only way in which art can be appreciated.  Jonathan Jones, an art critic for the British newspaper The Guardian, boldly declared in 2000 that a Hubble photograph of a star-birth region “is one of the most flamboyantly beautiful artworks of our time.”  I agree wholeheartedly.  In fact, by now Hubble images have been exhibited as part of art shows both at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore and at the Palazzo Loredan in Venice, Italy (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Hubble images on display at the Palazzo Loredan in Venice, Italy.

Given that Hubble images may be regarded (at some level at least) as works of art (in addition to their scientific value), one may still ask which of those images would qualify for “Hubble’s Best.”  Note that here I am completely ignoring the importance of the images for scientific research, and am considering only their artistic impact.  Even so, the question does not have a clear or immediate answer.  In fact, it would probably be no easier to determine which is Hubble’s greatest image than trying to choose Rembrandt’s best painting.  To make progress, I decided to use my own (clearly subjective!) judgment and to select the ten images that I consider to be the most visually appealing.  I then presented those ten images to a few dozen of my colleagues, asking them to point to the one they liked best.  I present below the five stunning images that came out on top (Figures 2–6).  Even though there was one clear winner, I deliberately refrained from rank-ordering the five images.  Which one is your favorite?

Figure 2. The majestic Sombrero Galaxy (M104).

Figure 3. The Cat’s Eye Nebula: a dying Sun-like star creates a heavenly sculpture of gas and dust.

Figure 4. A giant Hubble mosaic of the Crab Nebula—the remnant of a supernova explosion recorded in 1054.

Figure 5. Hubble captures view of “Mystic Mountain”—pillars of gas and dust, with jets emanating from the centers of disks around young stars, in the Carina Nebula.

Figure 6. A “rose” made of the interacting pair of galaxies Arp 273.

  3 Responses to “The Hubble Space Telescope’s Greatest “Art””

  1. Of all these magnificent images, I find the “rose” to be, if nothing else, the most musical among them.

  2. Before visiting this page my favorite was ‘Mystic mountain’, but now it’s a ‘rose’.

  3. Mario, thanks for another insightful essay. It’s certainly hard to pick a favorite (even if they didn’t all feel like my progeny, and who can pick a favorite child?). Of these particular examples, I’d have to go with Mystic Mountain for its shear drama, but also because only Hubble can do justice to this target. While Crab and Sombrero are spectacular, frankly they have been “photographed to death” by every observatory, and the resulting images are not tremendously different, at least at small reproduction. Only Hubble can do justice to Arp 273 and Cat’s Eye also, but I think the Mountain still has the edge, partly for what it represents: much of stellar evolution encapsulated in a single image. I also think this demonstrates the true power in astronomical images — which has seen its greatest effectiveness with Hubble — a convergence of vision and comprehension. These are largely abstract images, but when we understand what we are viewing, they become representational, photos of real landscapes, albeit places with which we have no direct human experience — until now. I feel the images gain another dimension, sometimes verging on vertigo, like looking into an abyss, a dimension of understanding as powerful as, but distinct from a stereo/3D representation.

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