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The Wow Factor: Joel Achenbach on Hubble Images

The Hubble Space Telescope's newest images show a violent and awesome universe where stars far outshine our humble earth.

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Joel Achenbach
Monday, December 7, 2009; 12:00 PM

The Hubble Space Telescope's latest images show a violent and awesome universe where stars outshine our humble Earth. But where do we fit in?

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The Post's Joel Achenbach explored that question in his Post Magazine cover story, The Wow Factor. He took questions and comments about the story, the images and more on Dec. 7. A transcript is below.

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washingtonpost.com: We're running a little late ... will start in just a few minutes!

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Joel Achenbach: Hey fellow space people! Sorry I'm a few minutes late. Got caught up in the asteroid belt and my phasers were on the blink...

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Anonymous: Great job. Best article I have ever read about our universe, and I am 86 years old.

Joel Achenbach: Thanks! Great to get an attaboy from someone born the year Hubble found that Cepheid variable in Andromeda...Thus destroying Harlow Shapley's universe.

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Washington, D.C.: Can Hubble photograph the surface of Mars giving a very high resolution of the surface features?

Joel Achenbach: Let me say, up front, that any and all technical, scientific questions ought to be addressed to the people at the Space Telescope Science Institute, since they actually know what they're talking about. Anything I say is, at best, a guess. But it's my GUESS that the answer here is no, that if you want to see what Mars looks like up close you should refer to the Mars orbiters that NASA has zooming right above the red planet.

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Arlington, Va.: Are we SURE these are photographs? Because they look like amazing paintings.

I love science.

Joel Achenbach: There are some painterly qualities to them, for sure, and to some degree they are constructed images -- from raw data, and real structures, the astronomers craft the image for maximum impact, using colors to correspond to different molecular elements, for example. In a second I'll paste in an excerpt of something I wrote in the mag many years ago...Stand by.

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Joel Achenbach: From a 1997 story I did in the magazine:

With an 81/2-by-11-copy of Pillars of Creation, and my quiver of questions, I flew earlier this year to Toronto, for a meeting of the American Astronomical Society. I quickly ran into John Graham, a distinguished astronomer from the Carnegie Institution in Washington. Graham examined my gaseous pillars photograph, admired it, and then said, "This is oriented to look picturesque."

His point was so obvious that of course I had missed it all along: The three pillars are perfectly vertical. "True north-south orientation is something like that," Graham said, and he pivoted the frame to make the pillars point off to the right, about 2 o'clock. It was clear that if the pillars were hanging down, rather than pointing up, they would be not so pretty at all, indeed they would be borderline repugnant.

Every astronomer I spoke to praised the technical virtuosity of the Eagle Nebula image, but also acknowledged its cosmetic nature. Geoff Marcy said of the picture, "It's so artificial-looking you wonder what part of it is right." Charles Steidel said, "I think this looks fake." Bruce Bohannan noted, "The stars should be white." Owen Gingerich said the image was "startling," and he gave an admiring description of the pillars:

"They look to me like giant columns of smoke rising up. But when you look at it, you realize it's something better than that, because of this splendid illumination around the edge. There is an otherworldliness about it. You'd think that Dali, even with his imagination, couldn't have come up with something like this."

But then Gingerich pointed out the craftiness of the shot. The pillars are arranged such that all three fit perfectly into the Hubble's unique framing, which is designed to allow one section of the image to be more highly detailed but requires that several quadrants remain blank (that's the missing portion on the upper right of the picture). Moreover, he said, the image is clearly contrast-enhanced, which is typical with astronomical pictures. And in real life there wouldn't be those diffraction spikes. In fact, just making the picture at all involves a necessary illusion. In real life, the Eagle Nebula would be much fainter and much less colorful than it appears in this image -- if by real life we mean how it would look to a human staring from a starship parked nearby. Most objects in space are much less brilliant than they appear in textbooks. The universe is simply a dim place.

This is hardly cheating, since the human eye, with its limited capacities and its bias toward certain frequencies of electromagnetic radiation, is an arbitrary standard for declaring the "true" brightness of something. We all use imperfect equipment, whether it's a telescope or an eyeball. Bohannan points out that Galileo got in trouble for inventing a new tool that changed how we viewed reality. Before the telescope, reality was just what you could see with your own eyes.

If there is a single feature of the image that is undeniably illusory, it's that everything looks close together. The depth dimension is flattened out, and all we get is a happy little bunching of objects. Our minds prefer this: We reflexively shrink space down and make it more manageable.

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Rockville: I know we search radio waves for "messages" but has anyone searched the light from stars for meaning? Like a code or something? Just a thought.

Joel Achenbach: Radio waves and light are the same thing -- it's all part of the electromagnetic spectrum -- and the answer is, yes, the SETI searchers have sometimes looked in the optical rather than the radio. The advantage of radio is that it goes through the dust I believe. But with lasers you could get more distance for your buck I believe, if you were a spacefaring civilization and need to tell your spaceship commander that he missed the exit and needs to double back.

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Baltimore, Md.: Hi Joel, Zolt Levay here, at STScI. Just thought I'd join in here, and start by saying what a great piece this is.

Joel Achenbach: Zolt, thanks so much for joining in! And thanks for making such great pictures. Obviously space helps but you folks do tremendous work.

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Washington, D.C.: A lot of people questioned why we should spend the money and manpower to fix Hubble .... I think these photos prove why it was worth it. That said, is NASA the most screwed-up agency ever or what?

Joel Achenbach: The repair mission in May was a great feat of ingenuity and pluck. And we see the results now. That said, the next generation of space telescopes are not being designed to be serviceable. The Webb is going to be a million miles away. (You could latch onto it robotically and haul it back to LEO, conceivably.) I wrote a couple of pieces that touched on this earlier this year. The argument is that it's cheaper to make them to be disposable, like with razors.

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Alexandria, VA: I'm not an astronomer, but I'm guessing that it's expensive to point Hubble at something and take images, and the line of researchers waiting to get their turn to use Hubble for particular projects is probably very long. Given how close Mars is, there are a lot of other telescopes and satellites that can take highly detailed images so it's probably not a high priority or good use of resources to use Hubble to take images of close-by objects.

Joel Achenbach: I think that's bang-on.

But...but...I did talk to John Grunsfeld who is the astronaut/astronomer who fixed the Hubble. He has some telescope time in which he is going to look at the moon.

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bc near dc: Joel, from where we are, does it not appear that the +/- 1% of Everything we can see with Hubble that the Universe is a lot more exciting than the quiet backwater of the Solar System? All the interesting stuff in the Universe seems to require lots of energy (dark and light) and gravity and time; more than the biological life we know on this planet can handle (including us). I'm feeling a little different from the Other Kids in the Universe -- can you offer some sort of hope that the Solar System is not just the equivalent of a stagnant pond or a forgotten 8th grade science experiment left in a damp basement too long? That we might not just be permanent wallflowers in the Big Cosmic Dance?

Also, is there any chance that the Hubble can be reoriented towards Earth, and on Fed Ex Field specifically, give the NFL officials in the replay booth a better view for reviewing plays? I realize that even the Hubble's mighty imaging systems can't see any hope for Washington's 2009 season.]

Perhaps I'm overly optimistic, but I'm hoping that Pending Further Review from the Great Replay Booth, the call on the Deep Field that this amazing, beautiful, energetic Universe is out of bounds for us might be overturned.

bc

Joel Achenbach: Maybe the Hubble can be turned into a Death Ray that can zap other teams just as they're about to beat the Redskins again. Just thinking out loud.

I think life is the exciting stuff of the universe -- and consciousness the bewildering and amazing emergent attribute of life given long enough to evolve -- and thus our quiet backwater is more interesting than, say, the core of the Omega Centauri globular cluster.

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Boodle Boodle, Washington: Wonderful article. What is the Hubble's future? How much longer will it be working? Is there a replacement for it?

Joel Achenbach: Hubble should be up there firing away on all, or most, cylinders for about 5 years or so, maybe 8 or even 10, but space is a harsh environment.

Here's what I wrote in May:

The great telescope in space has an antenna with a hole in it the size of a .22-caliber bullet. One of the telescope's main cameras has died. So has an instrument called a spectrograph. Three of six stabilizing gyros are kaput. A data router failed, and a backup had to take over. The telescope is getting slower about latching onto guide stars. The batteries are running down. And the shiny exterior has been torn up by countless collisions with tiny particles.

Yet, despite the battering and the ravages of old age, the Hubble Space Telescope is still 500 million times as sensitive as the human eye, and astronomers say its best days may yet be ahead. That depends on what happens in coming days when astronauts aboard the space shuttle Atlantis attempt to give the orbiting observatory new instruments, new batteries and a new lease on life.

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Washington, D.C.: I believe that the Hubble is one of the top five most important scientific achievements of the 20th century. Do you agree?

Joel Achenbach: Gosh, I think it's a great telescope, but does it make the top 5? In no particular order:

1. Structure of DNA

2. Special and general relativity

3. Quantum mechanics

4. Moon landing

5. Invention of microprocessors

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bc near dc: Hi, Joel.

While we're on the question of Everything, can you or Zolt give us some updates on the space telescopes that will follow Hubble (what they are, what they're looking for), and any updates on when Hubble's scheduled for decomission/deorbit?

bc

Joel Achenbach: If Zolt is reading this maybe he'll respond.

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Rockville: The television screen is all these pixels with different colors. The information just turn on or off a pixel and sets the color. How about a "real" screen with the elements as variables? Just add information and the show starts. Bot it seems to have a distributed data store with "data in picture." Or genes.

But sometimes I think God had more fun with minerals and elements than with people. But that is just my take.

Joel Achenbach: Mineralphiles always live in Rockville.

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Washington, DC: I love your pieces on the cosmos, Joel, but I can't imagine they are a high-priority news event for a cash-strapped newsroom. How did you get the Post to agree to let you cover the NASA beat?

Joel Achenbach: Marc Kaufman was going on leave and he saw me in the hallway and said, "I hear you're going to fill in on the NASA beat."

I cover the beat the way LeRon Landry covered that Saint who kept giving him the double-move and catching 60-yard touchdowns.

Right now I'm working on an economics story.

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Fairfax, Virginia: Another very enjoyable article. I am still concerned by the use of false coloration in these pictures. This seems vaguely dishonest to me. Is this something that concerns you as well?

Joel Achenbach: No, doesn't worry me at all. As that excerpt noted, there's no "right" way to reproduce an image of space. The colors have information, first of all. Secondly, to the extent that the images are enhanced, the real drama still comes from the stars, galaxies, planets, themselves. You can slap all the color you want on a blob of dirt and its never going to be that interesting to look at. But some color on the Butterfly Nebula accentuates an already astonishing structure. If you're a purist I am sure you can take the color images and scan them to be black and white.

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Alo, NE: People always say looking up at the stars makes them feel small and insignificant. But looking at photos like these makes me feel big and important -- look at what we are a part of! This is a universe of beauty and destruction and creation, and we get to observe it.

Joel Achenbach: Well, that's certainly my take -- and what I wrote in "Captured By Aliens" (Simon & Schuster, 1999). We are not the center of the universe but are a very interesting element of the universe. Not unique, probably, but relatively rare. And here's a thought: It is unlikely that we would ever find a planet where we could live without radical technological changes/adaptations. The oxygen level would be wrong, probably; or the temperature wrong. Human beings encode the earth in our tissues and cells. This is where we belong. Seems to me.

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San Diego, CA: Are the images from Hubble of interest to working astronomers? Are they used in active research and theories?

They are quite beautiful and should be in art galleries, but do they serve a scientific purpose as well?

Joel Achenbach: Of course. The "pretty pictures" are just one element of the Hubble's portfolio. For example, new instruments on the Hubble are studying the deep fabric of dark matter in intergalactic space; no pretty pictures there but lots of information potentially about what space is, how it's structured.

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Baltimore, Md.: The followup mission to Hubble is the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) currently planned to launch in 2014. This will be a larger telescope, in orbit, designed mostly to look at the earliest structures in the universe. To do that, it will be sensitive to infrared light, rather than visible, and it will be able to study lots of other things out there.

Eventually (in a decade timescale) we will need to bring Hubble down in an orderly way so it doesn't fall someplace we'd rather it didn't.

There are also many large ground-based telescopes now in operation and planned for the future which will complement the capabilities of Hubble and Webb.

Joel Achenbach: There's your answer.

I wonder if, when the Hubble sinks to the bottom of the South Pacific, someone will go fetch it.

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McLean, Va.: You mentioned in your blog that less than 1 percent of the sky has been viewed. I assume that this isn't some random 1 percent, but instead represents areas of interest. Do you know which criteria are used to select where the Hubble looks?

washingtonpost.com: Amazing Hubble space telescope fact (Achenblog, Dec. 5)

Joel Achenbach: Hey, thanks for the great link to the Achenblog. This could be my big break.

Yes, the Hubble targets interesting structures that have, for the most part, been previously observed. The four images in the story, for example, have been seen before, just never with the angular resolution and information intensity of the Hubble so far as I know (the Hubble may have looked at them earlier but with a different camera).

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Arlington VA by way of Atlanta: Wow! Great article, great photos, and thanks for writing it. My question is this: does your brain shut down like mine does when you consider an 11 dimensional membrane-based multiverse? Isn't it easier to just look at these photos and go "Ooooh!"? Seriously -- can you recommend any books that would explain, in layman's terms, what physicists "know" about the universe(s)?

Joel Achenbach: There's a new book called You Are Here by some new cat that's quite terrific.

I like Tim Ferris's books, such as Coming of Age in the Milky Way, or The Whole Shebang.

Also, Brian Greene and The Elegant Universe.

Hawking's A Brief History of Time is more owned than read but I think it's a good overview.

Have you ever looked at Sagan's books?

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Fairfax, Virginia: Your article implies, at least to me, some conflict between those who want to stress the pretty pictures and those who want to stress the deeper science behind those pictures. When selecting where to look, how much emphasis is given on producing eye-candy, and how much is given on scientific interest?

Joel Achenbach: I think that, for the new instruments on the Hubble, they intentionally selected some gee-whiz images to show what the new instruments could do. But with telescope time so precious they're going to give science the highest priority.

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bc near dc: Thanks for answering my question about hope, Joel. I just shut the window from my 8th floor ofc. and sat back down at the computer.

Also, thanks for not resisting the impulse to go theological on us when writing this story. It's difficult consider the nature of Everything when looking at images of such magnitude, and hey, much of spirituality and religion offers cosmology, typically right at the beginning of the book.

But I find it somewhat disquieting that we might be conduits for the Universe's self-reflection when I see people getting out of cars yelling at each other over parking spaces for Holiday shopping.

Still, we're all we've got at the moment.

bc

Joel Achenbach: Did you know that the Salahis were once astronauts.

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Annandale, VA: Do you have any thought about the "Great Filter" hypothesis developed in response to the Fermi paradox.

Joel Achenbach: Remind me bout that one.

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Philadelphia, PA : Is there a Wow gene? Is there any member of the species who would not be wonder-struck by these photos? By creation? What does that say about us? We certainly don't have uniform taste on other matters -- at all, really. What within us would spark such mutual admiration for all that is? And what would be the evolutionary reason for such a gene? Do we suppose other species would share it as well?

Joel Achenbach: I think that humans may be the only species on the planet that goes "Wow." But other animals probably do say to themselves, "That lunch looks so good I'm about to slobber an ocean." So "Wow" is a slightly more elevated emotion. But others may disagree.

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Joel Achenbach: I'm heading back to my economics story...Thanks everyone for joining in!

Cheers, Joel

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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