Astronomer Travis Rector’s new book uses art to see the science in space

November 18, 2015
Horsehead Nebula

The Horsehead Nebula is part of a dense cloud of gas in front of an active star-forming region known as IC 434. .T.A. Rector (NOAO/AURA/NSF) & Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA/NASA)WIYN Observatory  Kitt Peak, Arizona

Here’s a new word for your next party: pareidolia (sounds like pear-a-doily-a).

It’s the phenomenon of your brain playing tricks on you, convincing you that indeed there’s a face in that cloud or on the crusty surface of your burnt toast. You probably remember the news stories about a woman seeing Christ’s face on a tortilla? Same thing.

This capacity to see familiar things in everyday objects—like a horsehead in the image above—is believed to be the result of natural selection. The idea is that those with the capacity to quickly detect danger (often in the shape of faces and figures) manage to survive. This tendency is with us all the time, even when we aren’t threatened.

That mouthful of a word, pareidolia, came up when I asked UAA astronomer and professor of physics Travis Rector about people’s tendency to sense something spiritual, religious or god-like in his other-worldly, deeply colorful images of nebulae and galaxies from space.

“We’ve got a whole chapter on that,” he said, referring to Coloring the Universe, a new book about the work of photographing the cosmos. For one thing, when pareidolia happens, the commonly perceived image resonates broadly.

As he writes in the book, just out in November, “A spectacular image of two galaxies tearing themselves apart may get some attention. What if it happens to look like a cat? It has a high chance of going viral.”

Elephant Trunk nebula

Elephant’s Trunk or IC 1396 is a giant emission nebula that is over 3 degrees in diameter. It is illuminated by a hot, massive O-type star (HD 206267) near its center. The star is not visible in this image, it is off of the top edge. This image is of IC 1396A, a dark, dense cloud of gas embedded in the nebula. It is informally known as the ‘Elephant Trunk Nebula’ because of its distinctive shape. Kitty Peak National Observatory Kitt Peak Arizona T.A. Rector and H. Schweiker (WIYM and NOAO.AURA/NSF)

Our very tendency to interpret random imagery as identifiable objects is part of what makes his astrophotography resonate so powerfully with audiences. Images that bear names like the Eye of God and the Hand of God and the Elephant’s Trunk and the Horsehead nebula all bear witness to our capacity for naming the unknown by what we “see” there.

Rector has been making these images for more than 20 years and fielding questions about them just as long. He’ll speak to the challenges at two campus planetarium shows November 20 and a bookstore event November 23. Commonly, people want to know if the images are real. Is it what the object really looks like? Are the colors real? If I were standing right next to it, would it look like this?

The answers are yes and no. The yes is because the object photographed is real. As Rector says, “One thing I emphasize is that everything in the book and anything in an astronomy image is real. It really exists.”

He’s not busy “Photoshop-ing” stars in and out of images to make them look better. “These are real objects in space, not graphic artists’ conceptions of space,” he says.

The no is there because we as humans would not be able to see these objects without the application of color. “And so the question is,” says Rector, “how do you make an image that is faithful to what is out there, and turn it into something people can see?”

Eagle Nebula

The Eagle Nebula is a very luminous open cluster of stars surrounded by dust and gas. The three pillars at the center of the image, made famous in an image by the Hubble Space Telescope, are being sculpted by the intense radiation from the hot stars in the cluster. T.A. Rector and B.A. Wolpa (NRAO/AUI/NSF) WIYN Observatory  Kitt Peak, Arizona.

Thus enters the art and aesthetics of capturing the cosmos. For the most part, says Rector, astronomers make the images as a visualization tool for themselves. But a lot of Rector’s images are made for the public “so they can see what our telescopes can see.” In other words, whatever is out there is too faint or too small or a kind of light that our eyes just can’t see, so his artistry helps us see it.

As mentioned, a big driver of the book is to answer the common questions Rector has entertained for two decades. He is the primary writer, with assistance from co-authors Kimberly Arcand and Megan Watzke with NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. A popular query is what’s it like to be a professional astronomer.

“People think I am up all night every night, looking through the telescope. That’s not true,” said Rector. “The book describes how I get to use these telescopes, and how they are different from the telescope you might buy at a photography store.”

A common misconception is that telescopes are like giant binoculars: they simply pull distant objects closer and make them look bigger. Telescopes have a different job, though. They can see things that are literally billions of times fainter than our eyes can see.  Or, as Rector explains in the book, a telescope “is a device that collects light from a distant object in space.”

Sometimes the images are easy to get, and sometimes they are extremely hard to capture. His most famous, M16, or the Eagle nebula, was relatively easy. It is his most popular, but not his favorite.

Travis Rector

Travis Rector standing in front of the Gemini North telescope on Mauna Kea on the big island of Hawai’i. (Photo by Peter Michaud)

“Sometimes I feel like a band that had a hit single early in their career and they can’t top it,” he said with a laugh. “The images I am most proud of are the images that are the hardest to make… something like the telescope was missing that night, or the data had problems that I needed to fix.”

He described the image of Cygnus Loop, the remains of a star that exploded as a supernova 5,000 to 10,000 years ago, as one of his most difficult. It is one of the largest astronomical images ever made, capable of covering the whole side of a giant office building. While creating it, the computer just kept crashing.

“One of my proudest moments,” he said with dry humor, “was when I got Photoshop to die on me. It just came up with an error message that read: Photoshop cannot continue. It couldn’t even begin to explain what was wrong.”

But Rector prevailed and got that image. “It was the most satisfying for me, because technically it was so difficult.”

Find more of Travis Rector’s images here. A version of this story by Kathleen McCoy appeared in the Alaska Dispatch News on Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015.

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