Friday, March 3, 2006

Hubble as constellation

Beyond the Beyond: Man, that Hubble is something else: "The Crab Nebula has never looked crabbier. Look at the detailing on that structure. Who would have guessed that the colossal violence of a supernova would have such a filamentary, mineralized quality? It must be puffing apart at something like half the speed of light, yet it's like a geode."

I think it looks like a clump of moss that's been pulled apart. And, yeah, it's totally amazing that we have pictures like this: such gorgeous examples of our social and cultural imaginaries.

Sterling gets it in his post title: Man, that Hubble *is* something.

HubbleSite: Behind the Pictures

"When you look out your kitchen window, the view outside is framed by the shape of that window. Likewise, Hubble’s view is framed by the instrument making the observation."

"Hubble can detect all the visible wavelengths of light plus many more that are invisible to human eyes, such as ultraviolet and infrared light...Hubble uses special filters that allow only a certain range of light wavelengths through. Once the unwanted light has been filtered out, the remaining light is recorded...The use of filters allows scientists to study 'invisible' features of objects."

"Color in Hubble images is used to highlight interesting features of the celestial object being studied. It is added to the separate black-and-white exposures that are combined to make the final image. Creating color images out of the original black-and-white exposures is equal parts art and science. We use color: to depict how an object might look to us if our eyes were as powerful as Hubble; to visualize features of an object that would ordinarily be invisible to the human eye; to bring out an object's subtle details."

One of the defining features of an inscription, Latour and Woolgar claim, is a black-boxing of the processes that made its production possible. In the Hubble case we get a peek into the black-box of astronomy imaging. We get a glimpse of the constellation that is Hubble: a dynamic and purposeful actor-network of satellites and cameras and laboratories and computers and technicians and methods and dreams.


Blogger Timo said...

It's amazing that Hubble is giving us imagery that is so much like the airbrushed sci-fi imagery of the 60s, 70s and 80s.

Anonymous anne said...

Ha! What do you think those guys read in their spare time? ;)

Blogger Jean-Louis Trudel said...

I'm not sure I'd agree with respect to SF art from before 1980. (Spacescapes were either pointillist or used large washes of colour that was very far from this sort of filigree work.) This picture looks more like a product of the post-fractal age. The post-Mandelbrot visual universe.

Anonymous anne said...

"The post-Mandelbrot visual universe"


Anonymous Theo Honohan said...

I think you're exaggerating the extent to which the qualities of these images might be socially constructed or even influenced by sci-fi aesthetics. Sometimes a frame is just a literal frame, and a filter is just a filter, and they are tools of objectivity rather than ways of making a subjective selection.

Anonymous anne said...

"Sometimes a frame is just a literal frame, and a filter is just a filter, and they are tools of objectivity rather than ways of making a subjective selection."

Theo - I couldn't disagree more. Neither frames nor filters are "tools of objectivity". They always already exclude or alter particular aspects of our view, and as such cannot be claimed as un-distorting. However, the more interesting question is *what* is being socially or culturally constructed here, and while the comments about sci-fi may have been exaggerated, they are hardly irrelevant.

Anonymous Theo Honohan said...

Hmmm. I don't want to get into the science wars here. There is however a lot to be said about this.

I think you're projecting your sociological conception of "frame" and "filter" into a context where they are being used casually to mean something quite different.

You understand the frame to be something explicit which includes the scene and excludes other parts of the view, but that's only one way to think of it. As is clear from the website you link to, the frame is actually a somewhat arbitrary implicitly-defined shape resulting from constraints on the size and shape of the camera.

What's actually going on here is an act of "pointing" rather than framing.

Atget, Pointing by John Szarkowski.

(The use of filters to create a colour image certainly is a subjective process, but it's a banal one, and crucially this kind of colour image is not used for science. It's not an inscription.)

Anonymous Theo said...

I'll shut up now, but here are some quotes from Latour that I think support my position:

"what if hands were actually indispensable to reaching truth, to producing objectivity, to fabricating divinities? What would happen if, when saying that some image is human-made, you were increasing instead of decreasing its claim to truth?"

" To begin with, for most people, they are not even images, but the world itself. There is nothing to say about them except learning their message. To call them image, inscription, representation, to have them exposed in an exhibition side by side with religious icons, is already an iconoclastic gesture. "If those are mere representations of galaxies, atoms, light, genes, then one could say indignantly, they are not real, they have been fabricated." And yet, as will be made visible here (see Galison, Macho, Huber, Rheinberger), it slowly becomes clearer that without huge and costly instruments, large groups of scientists, vast amounts of money, long training, nothing would be visible in those images. It is because of so many mediations that they are able to be so objectively true." (my emphasis)


Anonymous anne said...

Theo - we're *after* the science wars now ;)

And of course I'm "projecting" - isn't that what we all do when we try to make sense of things according to what we already understand - or when we want to see something a different way? And of course my definition of a frame is only one way of looking at things - I make no attempt to speak for anyone or anything other than myself. (I am not stating a "fact".)

In other words, you are simply disagreeing with my interpretation of Hubble. And that's cool - I don't feel the need to convince you of my position. Do you feel the need to convince me that your position is the 'right' one? Or can we both be content to have our differences converge without consensus?

But, that notion of "pointing" rather than "framing" is very interesting - pointing, after all, is generally considered to be demonstrative rather than constructive, and it implies an a priori existence of some*thing* being demonstrated. At the same time, if we follow Wittgenstein, pointing is also ambiguous, and always already bound up in language games. (What is being pointed at in these photos?)

As for whether or not these photos are inscriptions, I find your comment that they are not "used for science" to be most interesting. How is the public communication of scientific research not being "used for science"?

Anonymous anne said...

Theo - I see we just crossed paths!

So, you're working with Latour's ideas ... me too ;)

First, I am not claiming these images to be entirely human-made (I hinted at a constellation, or an actant-network in my post), so we need not get mired in extreme social constructivism.

In fact, Latour borrows not just a little bit from Wittgenstein and others when he claims that *naming* itself (imaging, framing, pointing) creates icons that are difficult to refute. But with this claim of objectivity - "It is because of so many mediations that they are able to be so objectively true" - what is Latour really saying?

Is he claiming that mediation - as part of scientific methods - is what allows for translation and/or enrolment? What kind of *object*ivity is this?


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