The power of awe and the universe

Images emerging from the James Webb Space Telescope have captured details of the universe never seen before, leaving the scientific community and the public alike in awe. In a tweet, former President Barack Obama described them as “Brainstorming. Even Stanford cosmologist Zeeshan Ahmed, for whom such images are common, admitted: “You cannot contain them in your head. I think this applies to everyone – I mean scientists are still human.”

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has been able to show new and finer details about the group of galaxies, the Stefan Pentagram. The presentation here was created from nearly 1,000 separate image files. (Image credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI)

“Awe is a kind of this unspeakable sense of transcendence,” said James Dottie, a neurosurgeon and empath researcher at Stanford University. “In some ways, you melt into it.”

Scientists across disciplines have long sought to understand the arousal – soul-searching, and even – the emotions evoked by the universe. Some have described a vibration they call “cosmic vertigo.” Others have used the term “cosmic banality” when one encounters one’s own smallness in a boundless world. Some have found dwelling too long in such thoughts to be worrisome, an experience they call “neuro-existentialism.”

To describe how images from outer space can excite and expand the human mind, Stanford University’s advanced lecturer in American studies Elizabeth Kessler, who studies the visual culture of astronomy, found it useful to draw on a sublime 18th-century aesthetic concept that philosopher Immanuel Kant associated with natural phenomena. of vast size, magnitude or power, such as tall mountains, deep abyss, tumbling waterfalls, and a sky full of stars, trying to understand the feelings that the Milky Way and the starry sky evoke in oneself. For Kant, the experience of such intensity overwhelmed the senses, but the human mind could transcend those limits, making it an emphatic experience that expanded knowledge and understanding.

bigger and more

A casual stroll across campus is enough to reveal just how inspiring the universe can be.

At Stanford, representations of outer space can be found outside the research laboratories and classrooms of astrophysicists and cosmologists. Wander through the quadrangular geometry plaza and one will encounter the installation of Alicja Kwade, PARS PRO TUTU, 12 human-sized stone planetary spheres that combine geology and cosmology to inspire new ways of thinking about the world. At the Cantor Center for the Arts, a team of iconic thinker Auguste Rodin shines under the fluorescent glow of Spencer Finch’s representation of the exploding star Betelgeuse. A winding staircase to the Green Library’s David Rumsey Map Center are reproductions of 17th-century maps of stars and constellations, beautifully blown out to highlight figures from Greek mythology amidst the celestial skies—all reminders of humanity’s place in the world and our relationships to one another.

For Doty, who is also the founder and director of the Stanford Center for Research and Education on Compassion and Altruism, and who is his founding benefactor, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the power of awe lies in its ability to make us feel connected to something big. greater than ourselves.

James Doty (Image credit: Courtesy James Dottie)

“At the end of the day, we are all one, not just with each other but with every living being and, in fact, with the universe,” Dottie said. “It’s the nature of thinking about that and understanding you that is part of this extraordinary thing going on around us, creating this deep sense of purpose, connection, and, in some ways, happiness.”

Dottie points out that the superior experience of self-awareness and unity is also the basis of many religions. For example, in Buddhism, there is a deep desire to achieve enlightenment, which ultimately relates to merging oneself with the universe.

Designed to inspire

According to Kessler, an art historian, who examined the parallels between art, philosophy, and astrophotographs in her book, Imaging the Universe: Hubble Space Telescope Images and Astronomical Sublime (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), astronomical images are designed in a way to represent scientific data and evoke an aesthetic response.

Elizabeth Kessler (Image credit: Courtesy Elizabeth Kessler)

As Kessler learned in her interviews with the team that produced images for the Hubble Heritage Project, NASA wanted to publish images that would inspire the general public, not just individuals working in science and technology. Like any representation, each astronomical image includes decisions about how to depict the celestial phenomena captured by the telescope in a way that will not feel strange to the audience.

“Astronomers and image processors carefully balance the need for a scientifically valid image with the desire for an aesthetically appealing image,” Kessler said.

Because telescopes collect data too faint for our eyes to see and beyond the visible light spectrum (JWST is primarily in infrared light, and Hubble in visible and ultraviolet), colors are assigned to their images so we can fully appreciate them. Each color image from JWST, for example, is actually a composite of at least three different monochrome images, each one collected using a filter that captures a different wavelength of infrared light. Exposure can last for hours or even days. Each filter is then assigned a different color, which is then combined into the final images being traded.

While any color can be assigned to any wavelength, astronomers believe that some color combinations work better than others. For example, in the Hubble Heritage Project’s early rendering of the planetary nebula NGC 3132, the team experimented with an unorthodox color scheme of pink and yellow. Astronomer Keith Knoll said in an interview with Kessler that the end result “wasn’t quite right,” so they used colors that are less exotic and more typical of Earth worlds.

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