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Seeing Is Not Believing: Dr. Jayanne English talks visual grammar & the art behind astrophotograhy


Striking and colorful images of space are everywhere — in magazines and textbooks, on stamps, all over the Internet, and on the cover of academic journals. We might think these images are simply high definition snapshots from powerful telescopes, but the truth is actually a lot more involved.

Seeing Is Not Believing: Dr. Jayanne English talks visual grammar and the real art behind astrophotography  | Chaos at the Heart of Orion | NASA Spitzer and Hubble Space Telescopes have teamed up to expose the chaos that baby stars are creating 1,500 light-years away in a cosmic cloud called the Orion nebula. | Credit NASA/JPL-Caltech/STScI

The process is closer to data visualization; astronomers combine information recorded from telescopes over time in order to make measurements, but for public outreach images, they manipulate these data using image-editing software like Photoshop and GIMP. Much of the information that telescopes capture occurs outside the range of optical light, in wavelengths beyond what the human eye can perceive. So, explains University of Manitoba professor Dr. Jayanne English, when it comes to images of space, seeing is not believing.

ARTpublika Magazine spoke to Dr. English about her groundbreaking work creating these images in the field of astronomy. Public outreach images are aptly named because their purpose is to “pique [the public’s] interest” and “build bridges between the public and the scientists.” In order to do this effectively, though, scientists must have a grasp of “visual grammar” — or the basic concepts of art and design. Dr. English championed this notion when she was the coordinator of the Hubble Heritage Project in the late 1990s, which produced a stunning image of space once a month using archival data.

Seeing Is Not Believing: Dr. Jayanne English talks visual grammar and the real art behind astrophotography  | Age-Defying Star | An age-defying star called IRAS 19312+1950 exhibits features characteristic of a very young star and a very old star. The object stands out as extremely bright inside a large, chemically rich cloud of material, as shown in this image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. IRAS 19312+1950 is the bright red star in the center of this image. A NASA-led team of scientists thinks the star -- which is about 10 times as massive as our sun and emits about 20,000 times as much energy -- is a newly forming protostar. That was a big surprise, because the region had not been known as a stellar nursery before. But the presence of a nearby interstellar bubble, which indicates the presence of a recently formed massive star, also supports this idea. | Image NASA

She was particularly well suited for this role because of her background in both art and astronomy. She studied experimental arts at the Ontario College of Art and Design, then subsequently earned her Bachelor’s and Doctorate in Physics and Astronomy. This dual expertise lent her a certain authority in collaborating with her colleagues at the Heritage Project. “Everybody has an idea about what their data should look like. We would have to tell them, ‘Well, you don't stick [the subject] dead center. That's a static image and people won't look at it.’” She also taught them “why you choose certain colors to give spatial depth and [about] composition in general.”

Ultimately, this process is a means of converting images in the “logic tradition” — which are primarily quantitative and statistical — to the “Western image tradition,” which are more naturalistic. “Scientists,” she points out, “prefer to make contour plots,” but “the public doesn't understand” these kinds of graphs. As such, in order to successfully complete this conversion from logic tradition to Western tradition, scientists must have a basic grasp of visual grammar.

Seeing Is Not Believing: Dr. Jayanne English talks visual grammar and the real art behind astrophotography  | Carina Nebula Detail | Carina Nebula Details: Great Clouds Credit for Hubble Image: NASA, ESA, N. Smith (University of California, Berkeley), and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) Credit for CTIO Image: N. Smith (University of California, Berkeley) and NOAO/AURA/NSF The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute conducts Hubble science operations. Goddard is responsible for HST project management, including mission and science operations, servicing missions, and all associated development activities. | Credit: NASA Goddard

In her seminal journal article, “Cosmos and Canvas: Visual Art Techniques Applied to Astronomy Data” (2017) Dr. English writes:

“The method of arrangement incorporates the techniques of composition and colour harmony…Visual grammar allows one to create an image that engages the viewer and retains their attention…[It] can create spatial depth, emphasize intriguing fine-scale detail, and deliver rich colours. Often it can help one communicate some of the scientific content without total reliance on a legend.”

In this way, she tells ARTpublika, “the image isn't supposed to tell you everything about the subject,” but it should still maintain its scientific integrity.

Seeing Is Not Believing: Dr. Jayanne English talks visual grammar and the real art behind astrophotography  | Composition and The Starry Night. This painting by Vincent Van Gogh, owned by the Museum of Modern Art,62 contains elements (or structures) to impede the eye’s exit from the picture plane. The schematic on the right shows some of the paths that the eye follows and the one labelled “3” traces a “virtual diagonal”. The final (nth) path leads to the church, which is not in the static centre of the picture plane. | Image Jayanne English

In her paper, Dr. English references Van Gogh’s The Starry Night (1889) as an illustrative example. “The church,” she writes, “is not in the dead centre of the painting. That would be… as boringly comprehensible as a bull’s eye target — the viewer would instantly assess the subject and stop looking at the picture plane. The alternative off-centre, dynamic placement retains the viewer’s attention.”

Seeing Is Not Believing: Dr. Jayanne English talks visual grammar and the real art behind astrophotography  | Composition and NGC 2207 and IC 2163. The top image has the conventional (east to the left) orientation for astronomical maps.The image has little depth. However, a spiral arm appears to swing towards the viewer in the bottom image, which is simply the top one rotated by 180 degrees. In the bottom orientation, used in the Hubble Heritage release, the galaxy disks align to form a virtual diagonal as in Fig. 13. This image appeared in numerous popular magazines in the bottom orientation and in a professional article63 in the top orientation. | Image Jayanne English

A Hubble Heritage Project image of two galaxies emulated this technique. Before applying elements of visual grammar, the galaxies looked “as flat as two eggs on a cast iron frying pan.” But “a simple rotation of 180 degrees and a tight cropping… sets up a composition similar to The Starry Night.” The altered image was so compelling that it was included in Life Magazine’s 1999 issue of The Year in Pictures.

This example illustrates the amount of decision-making that goes into creating a public outreach image.

“The data has to come in and be processed, the hardware noise has to be removed from the data. You have to combine [multiple exposures]. Once you have the data in the black and white format… there are still lots of artifacts to remove. And you have to then stack the images… pick which energy ranges you're going to use, assign colors to those energy ranges. You have to compose the picture.”

Seeing Is Not Believing: Dr. Jayanne English talks visual grammar and the real art behind astrophotography  | Hubble Supernova Bubble Resembles Holiday Ornament | Credit : NASA Goddard

It’s not a swift process; images have taken her up to a year to create. It all proves the point that these images are decidedly not simple snapshots. Dr. English takes issue with news headlines that say “something like ‘Hubble snaps a picture of [x].’ That’s not true.” This is also one reason why image-making instructions are democratized, available for any “citizen scientist” (i.e., someone without an astronomy degree) to access — it reiterates to the public that these images are scientifically valid manipulations, not pictures that correspond 1:1 with reality.

Anyway, we couldn’t physiologically digest a 1:1 snapshot, because telescopes detect a much wider range of energy wavelengths — such as radio waves, infrared, ultraviolet — than the optical nerve can perceive. Dr. English explains: “It’s kind of like if you could [simultaneously] see my skin and my bones.” Telescopes capture what the human eye cannot, and astronomers translate this information into visually harmonious — and scientifically accurate — images for public consumption.

Seeing Is Not Believing: Dr. Jayanne English talks visual grammar and the real art behind astrophotography  | Hubble Space Telescope,Spitzer Space Telescope | This image showcases both the visible and infrared visualizations of the Orion Nebula. This view from a movie sequence looks down the 'valley' leading to the star cluster at the far end. The left side of the image shows the visible-light visualization, which fades to the infrared-light visualization on the right. These two contrasting models derive from observations by the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes.  | Credit: NNASA/ESA, F. Summers, G. Bacon, Z. Levay, J. DePasquale, L. Frattare, M. Robberto and M. Gennaro (STScI), and R. Hurt (Caltech/IPAC)

Since her days at the Hubble Heritage Project, these images have come quite a long way. When she first started doing this work, she says, she would take just a few images, “usually from the same telescope… and assign red, green, and blue to each image… It would be very contour like and very simplistic.” As time went on, she said, “We got used to using algorithms like in Photoshop and Gimp that allow you to use different blending modes. We could assign different colors. We started to learn other techniques like masking, which allowed you to — if you had a bright region in one energy — you could mask that down so that you could insert something fainter.” In other words, their techniques grew increasingly sophisticated.

Seeing Is Not Believing: Dr. Jayanne English talks visual grammar and the real art behind astrophotography  | Horsehead Nebula | Image released April 19, 2013. Astronomers have used NASA's Hubble Space Telescope to photograph the iconic Horsehead Nebula in a new, infrared light to mark the 23rd anniversary of the famous observatory's launch aboard the space shuttle Discovery on April 24, 1990. Looking like an apparition rising from whitecaps of interstellar foam, the iconic Horsehead Nebula has graced astronomy books ever since its discovery more than a century ago. The nebula is a favorite target for amateur and professional astronomers. It is shadowy in optical light. It appears transparent and ethereal when seen at infrared wavelengths. The rich tapestry of the Horsehead Nebula pops out against the backdrop of Milky Way stars and distant galaxies that easily are visible in infrared light. <b>Credit:</b> NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) | Credit NASA Goddard

As for the future — like in many fields — they’re learning how to leverage virtual reality technology. With certain telescopes, such as the ALMA, astronomers are often “working in three dimensions,” but these are not three spatial dimensions as we generally conceive of them. In this case, instead of depth, the third dimension is velocity. But, Dr. English says: “We want to get inside of our data.” They want to work with three spatial dimensions, and not just “three dimensions projected onto [a two dimensional computer] monitor.” So the next frontier is hyper-realistic, 3-dimensional computer simulations that occur over time. “They can make a model,” for example, “of a spherical explosion [as it unfolds] in time…So we’re moving into virtual reality where we can… step into our data and do our analysis in three dimensions.”

And as the public starts to engage with these 3-D virtual simulations, we can expect them to retain the same principles of art and design, especially if Dr. English has anything to do with it. It’s worth pointing out another relevant development: she used to call the intersection between aesthetics and astronomy “canvas versus cosmos.” Now, she refers to it simply as “canvas and cosmos,” because she doesn’t “have to do the battle anymore.”

Seeing Is Not Believing: Dr. Jayanne English talks visual grammar and the real art behind astrophotography  | Hubble Goes High Def to Revisit the Iconic 'Pillars of Creation' | This NASA Hubble Space Telescope image, taken in near-infrared light, transforms the pillars into eerie, wispy silhouettes, which are seen against a background of myriad stars. The near-infrared light can penetrate much of the gas and dust, revealing stars behind the nebula as well as hidden away inside the pillars. Some of the gas and dust clouds are so dense that even the near-infrared light cannot penetrate them. New stars embedded in the tops of the pillars, however, are apparent as bright sources that are unseen in the visible image. The ghostly bluish haze around the dense edges of the pillars is material getting heated up by the intense ultraviolet radiation from a cluster of young, massive stars and evaporating away into space. The stellar grouping is above the pillars and cannot be seen in the image. At the top edge of the left-hand pillar, a gaseous fragment has been heated up and is flying away from the structure, underscoring the violent nature of star-forming regions. Astronomers used filters that isolate the light from newly formed stars, which are invisible in the visible-light image. At these wavelengths, astronomers are seeing through the pillars and even through the back wall of the nebula cavity and can see the next generations of stars just as they're starting to emerge from their formative nursery | Credit: Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team

She elaborates:

“In the past, astronomers [thought] you could have either or your scientific understanding, or you were doing something that was fantasy life or ‘artsy’… People understand now that there can be the support of their scientific ideas by using techniques from art and design.”

And while it’s true that she doesn’t consider public outreach images pieces of conceptual art, incorporating these artistic fundamentals is essential to accomplishing the image’s purpose.

Indeed, as she concludes her paper:

“Science can be rendered both engagingly and rigorously using visual grammar so that it is relevant to scientists, artists and the general public… If the attempt to balance communication of scientific information and perceptual power is described as a struggle between the culture of science and the culture of art, then in astronomy public outreach images both sides win.”

Note* The Starry Night, and the image of galaxy NGC 2207 and its interacting companion IC 2163, are taken from the paper by Dr. English. All other images are sourced from

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