The Art of Hubble Spectra

Antonella Nota,, & Kenneth Sembach,

We all recognize Hubble’s iconic pictures, which are found everywhere in the media these days, all over the internet, and even in movies. These pictures are now a part of how people think about the universe and their relationship to it. But what about Hubble spectra? Well, not so much. Even though astronomers find spectra essential for studying the physical and chemical properties of astronomical objects, spectra have less visual appeal than images, and they don’t immediately convey meaning in the same way images do. Consequently, spectra are less widely recognized and understood. Presenting and explaining spectra to nonscientists is a real challenge for communicators of science, and past attempts to convey the interest and excitement of astronomical spectra have met with limited success.

Bring in the artist!

In October 2010, the European Space Agency held a scientific conference in Venice, Italy, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Hubble launch, and to celebrate Hubble’s impacts on astronomers and the general public (see STScI Newsletter, Vol. 28, No. 1, page 49). The meeting organizers decided to experiment with displaying spectra. To this end, they invited Tim Otto Roth, a German artist, to create an exhibit based on a set of Hubble spectra of galaxies. Roth, who shares astronomers’ enthusiasm for spectra, immediately accepted.

Roth is known for his work with light and color (see He has collaborated with a variety of institutions, including Fermilab, Brookhaven National Laboratory, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (the new Library of Alexandria), and the Koldewey station for arctic research on Spitsbergen. He has been guest artist at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).

Roth collaborated with Bob Fosbury from ESO to create an art exhibit entitled From the Distant Past, which premiered in Venice in October 2010. A powerful green laser painted Hubble spectra of galaxies on the façade of Palazzo Cavalli Franchetti—hundreds of spectra, one after the other. This science animation was a stunning sight as people crossed the adjacent Academia Bridge.

The success in Venice led to the idea of showing the exhibit in the United States, this time supported by some educational materials to take advantage of the “teachable moment.” Two excellent venues were selected: Baltimore, home of Hubble, at the Maryland Science Center (MSC), and New York, at the Rose Center for Earth and Space, at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH).

From The Distant Past was visible in Baltimore from September 25 to October 18, 2011. The green spectra were projected onto the wavy wall of the MSC (see Figure 2).








It was shown the last two weeks in November in New York, where the spectra were projected on the spherical surface of the Hayden Planetarium (see Figure 3,, and the movie at At times, the sphere itself appeared to be slowly rotating as the spectra scrolled across the curved surface.