Astronomy stretches the limits of human imagination, asking us to consider distances so vast they take beams of light millions of years to cross, temperatures that make our sun feel like a tepid bowl of soup and forces that could instantly compress an elephant into a pinpoint. To make the universe a little more accessible to the public, psychologists Lisa F. Smith, EdD, and Jeffrey Smith, PhD, of the University of Otago College of Education in New Zealand, have teamed with Kimberly Kowal Arcand, image developer and public outreach specialist, and astrophysicists Jay Bookbinder, PhD, and Randall K. Smith, PhD, at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, in Cambridge, Mass., to form the Aesthetics and Astronomy Group. The group’s goal: Explore what laypeople and experts glean from pictures of faraway galaxies, black holes and exploded stars and improve astronomers’ ability to communicate with non-scientists.
“These images get people excited about astronomy; we want them also to convey information about our universe in a way that makes sense to laypeople and experts,” says Lisa F. Smith, president of Div. 10 (Society for the Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts).
Before they conducted their study, the Smiths were concerned that adding color keys and information around astronomical images might lessen people’s aesthetic enjoyment of them. However, the researchers found that the more information they provided, the more people appreciated the splendor of the pictures. “Novices are really knocked over by the beauty of these images,” says Jeffrey Smith. “But after the ‘wow,’ they want to know about the science.”
While some astronomers’ images can be seen with the naked eye, like the Cat’s Eye Nebula (left), many are actually composite images from several powerful telescopes, showing wavelengths that are not visible to the naked eye, such as the picture of supernova remnant G292 (right), which visualizes X-ray as well as optical energy. To improve people’s understanding of how these images are made, the Aesthetics and Astronomy Group has added an interactive feature to NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, which encourages visitors to experiment with composite images, clicking on the different wavelengths to see how each part contributes to the whole.
Consider a lit match: The hottest part of the flame, at the center, is blue. The center of the above galaxy, NGC 4696, is also the hottest part, but should it be shown as blue? In a study of 8,866 visitors to the Aesthetics and Astronomy survey site, almost three-quarters of respondents who viewed the above images saw the red one as hotter. “The astronomers tell us the wavelengths at the blue end of the spectrum are high energy and the ones at the red end are low energy, but you’d never say, ‘Don’t touch that stove; it’s blue hot,’” says Lisa F. Smith. As a result of this ἀnding, Smith recommends that astronomers explain their color conventions when making images for public consumption.