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Published: Saturday, 5/23/2009

Hubble Space Telescope gives us photos, and people make them beautiful

BY RYAN E. SMITH
BLADE STAFF WRITER
This 2005 image of the Eagle Nebula reveals a tall, dense tower of gas being sculpted by ultraviolet light from a group of massive stars. This 2005 image of the Eagle Nebula reveals a tall, dense tower of gas being sculpted by ultraviolet light from a group of massive stars.
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People have always looked up and admired the celestial beauty of the night sky. When the Hubble Space Telescope was launched into the Earth s orbit 19 years ago and we all got a better look, it only stoked our awe.

So while the device certainly has tremendous value for science hence NASA s $1 billion operation last week to give it a long-overdue makeover it s hard to overlook the artistic value of the hundreds of thousands of images that have come from the telescope over the years.

They re gorgeous! said Dena Elisabeth Eber, chairman of digital arts at Bowling Green State University.

Bright swirling clouds of color punctuated by dots of light the pictures can be breathtaking. But is that enough to make them art?

Ms. Eber said beauty is only one factor that should be considered. Others include the intentions of the creators, the level of meaning or expression they may carry, and aesthetics, or how the pictures are composed.

Obviously, Hubble is first and foremost a scientific tool. Its roots actually go back to Toledo native Lyman Spitzer, Jr., an astrophysicist who was the first to see the benefits of placing large telescopes in space, above an atmosphere that distorts and blocks light. He later lobbied for the creation of the Hubble.

Still, the unprocessed black-and-white images from the telescope require manipulation, and that s where things get fun.

The Hubble images are scientific images. They re recording what s there in the sky, but the art lies in how they re processed, explained Nancy Morrison, director of the Ritter Planetarium at the University of Toledo.

I point this out to students all the time, she said. I have to explain to students that when they look through a telescope at, say, the Ring Nebula, they re not going to see the same colors or fine detail.

That s because people on Earth choose color schemes and adjust the contrast of the images from space to bring out faint details, she said. Does it matter that they may be doing it to isolate hydrogen atoms and not just to make a pretty picture? Not to Ms. Morrison s father, an armchair astronomer who has some hanging around the house.

He s asked for Hubble pictures for Christmas, she said.

Lawrence Anderson-Huang, a professor of physics and astronomy at UT who teaches a course on the physics of color and light, believes that it takes more than a frame to make something art; it needs to be unique. That s tough to provide with a telescope.

The things that we re looking at change over such long time scales that somebody six generations from now could take the same picture, he said.

Contrast that to our view of this planet, which is constantly changing and can be viewed from nearly limitless angles. This is not to say that the Hubble s images are not pleasing to the eye or can t provide philosophical epiphanies about our place in the universe. In his mind, it just doesn t grant them the status of art.

And yet these pictures of deep space are so majestic. They stir such feelings in us. They carry such cultural significance. Ms. Eber finds it hard to deny them the title of art, especially the way the final results are shaped by human hands.

Maybe a better question in all this is: How can this not be art?

Contact Ryan E. Smith at:ryansmith@theblade.com or 419-724-6103



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