The Aesthetic Fantasy of Space

Astronomy strikes me as perhaps the most aesthetic science of them all. It is certainly the oldest scientific discipline, with early records of astronomical data going back 5000 years to the Mesopotamians, who first attempted to plot what they saw when they looked at the night sky. The interesting thing is, though the night sky itself hasn’t changed very much, the way we look at it has.

Galileo Galilei invented the first astronomical telescope in 1609. He modelled his after previously existing telescopes that could only produce a threefold magnification. Gallileo’s could magnify objects to twenty times their size. Later, Louis Daguerre made the first images of the moon in 1839. They looked like this.

Old black and white photograph of the moon. White and grey surface with black craters.
The birth of Astrophotography.

Today, children’s toy telescopes have more magnifying power than Gallileo’s and the Hubble Space Telescope orbits the Earth creating spectacular images like these.

NASA actively publishes the photos taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. They can be found here.

 

Its distance and size turn space into something of a fantasy land. We know it’s there but can only sense it through images created by machines. Our own unaided eyes can see little else but the moon, distant stars, and close planets for a savvy stargazer. The creation of tools like telescopes and cameras allows us to gain some small visual grasp of the universe, and provides scientists with important information, as well a means to visualise their work for non-scientists.

However, these images serve as much more than scientific data. Images of space also present us with a tremendous aesthetic landscape that not only inspire artists but are works of art in and of themselves. Further, space is arguably the most represented topic in works of science fiction. From Star Trek to Star Wars space dominates our cultural consciousness. It is in a unique sweet spot between science and the arts for us.

This is not lost upon astronomers themselves. Ulrike Kuchner holds a PhD in astrophysics Extragalactic Astrophysics as well as an MFA in Fine Arts. Moreover, she works actively in both fields, analysing images and data from the Hubble Space Telescope as well as curating exhibitions of her own artistic works. In a recent interview with the Bogotá post, she said “Aesthetics were my route into science. They made me want to learn more.”

It is easy to see how this point applies to astronomy because of the tremendous aesthetic resources available to aspiring astronomers today. While I tend to think aesthetics can be a route to any science, Astronomy is without a doubt the most striking example. With its dark recesses, twisting clouds of colored stardust, blazing balls of fire, and tremendous masses of ice and rock traveling at millions of miles per hour, outer space is a true aesthetic and scientific wonderland.

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