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The images from the operating team of the Hubble Space Telescope present a slew of the riddles we face in trying to create a visual rendition of the contemporary experience.  It’s true that they make a quite old-fashioned display of yearning for the infinite and the sublime that’s right in line with Vermeer.  That they do so by reaching farther outward (as opposed to Vermeer’s fixation on the internal) than any other previous human endeavor is only the beginning of their uniqueness.  Far more profound is the implication that these ostensibly scientific images are created as much out of human impressionistic impulses as they are by any objectively photographic means.  The Hubble uses a wide array of technologies to generate its images, including both conventional available-light optics and computer-rendered calculations of ultraviolet and infrared radiations.  Many of these original sources are not only invisible to the human eye, but are in all practical terms unexperienceable by human beings:  the events they describe are of a scale so large, or a distance so far away, or an energy level so wholly differentiated from human perceptability, that there is no accurate means for either describing or even perceiving what they “really” look like.  Moreover, when presented as raw informational quantities, they may not have any direct, understandable bearing for most of us as expressions of those same human experiences that Vermeer’s information did.  The challenge then is to create a visual representation of something that no human may ever directly experience on any level other than the sense of wonder. 

 

The Hubble team knows that, and has scientists like Zolt Levay working in the gap between the purely factual and the meaningfully human.  Levay uses his computers to translate that raw pulp of information that the telescope feeds to him into images that will register not just visually but cognitively, and perhaps even emotionally.  His team will make composites of different informational images, adding at their discretion various amounts and shades of color not only to describe objective criteria like changes in energy over the area of a quasar, but also to give the image a deeper resonance.  It’s easy to dismiss that human intervention in an otherwise mechanical affair as prettifying the information, or even outright propaganda.  Levay himself doesn’t deny that conundrum:  “Many of the images are a representation of reality rather than absolute reality, but then any photographic reproduction can only be a representation of reality, no?  Some are closer to our way of seeing than others.”  But reservations of that sort really miss the larger point.  Mechanical methods have always offered the best insight to human knowledge not through the perfectability of their information, but through their rendering of the fractured nature of that data as something that is both compelling and inherently unknowable.

 

It’s in this way that the Hubble team reveals its most profound connection with the likes of Vermeer:  not only in the scope of its ambition to create a distinct visual language, but in its much deeper understanding of what those creations mean in terms of the human experience.  The search itself is what is so completely human; it certifies our lives, and so returns us from the infinite back to ourselves.

 

© Copyright Gil Blank

Hubble’s Data Sublime 

Originally published in Influence magazine, Issue 1, 2003.