Beauty from Technology

Part of Jantar Mantar, the 18th century observatory at Jaipur, India. Click the image to see more incredible pictures. [Credit: GSZ on Flickr]
Last week, someone posted a set of truly amazing photos of Jantar Mantar, an 18th century observatory in Jaipur, India, which still can be used today. While the observatory was commissioned primarily for astrological purposes, as was often the case until relatively recently, the line between science and pseudoscience was thin and blurry. The entire complex is a mixture of wonderful architecture and applied geometry, to record the positions of various celestial objects.

As regular readers of this blog know, I often think about the beauty that can be found in the scientific enterprise. Not all scientific instruments are as obviously aesthetic as Jantar Mantar, though I think many of them have a beauty of their own. I find it interesting that we (at least in modern culture) often regard technology to be most beautiful when it isn’t obviously technological. Jantar Mantar is so wonderfully geometrical, it looks like a work of art rather than a sophisticated scientific instrument. But consider also the Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin, which was built to be architecturally elegant while it’s far more obviously a telescope dome. I imagine they get many visitors there just to look at the building, even without the huge telescope inside.

I think this may be the most impressive image I’ve yet seen of the Sun. It shows a filament – a stream of gas shaped by the Sun’s magnetic field. [Credit: Bret Dahl/Astronomy Picture of the Day]
Perhaps the beauty of scientific instruments—as with many scientific images—is one that emerges from knowledge. To phrase it another way, the more you know about the picture or device, the more its beauty becomes evident. I’ve thought about this a lot as I’ve worked on my book: the MINOS (Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search) detector isn’t particularly aesthetic, for example, but it’s an amazing experiment, and very impressive to see in person.

Some images can work on both levels. Consider the “new” image of Jupiter from Voyager 1—yes, that Voyager 1!—that was just posted at the Planetary Society to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the probe’s launch.

New mosaic of Jupiter, created from 1979 images taken by Voyager 1. Click on the image to see a much larger version, and to read the entire story of how Björn Jónsson made the mosaic – it’s fascinating to know how it was done, even though the image can be appreciated on its own. [Credit: NASA/JPL/Björn Jónsson]
The photo is beautiful on its own, but (in my view) all the more amazing in light of how it was created. This isn’t what Voyager 1 “saw” in 1979, but a processed mosaic. Is it less beautiful for knowing that? I don’t think so: most astronomical images we see are processed to some degree…and that’s fine! They are not “fakes” because we need technologyto create them.

I’ll leave this post with two more incredible images, both recent, both created in a similar way—while they commemorate very different achievements. The first: a view from Moon orbit of the Apollo 11 landing site, which NASA posted in honor of the death of Neil Armstrong last week.

The Apollo 11 landing site, as seen from Moon orbit by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). Let what you’re seeing sink in for a moment: the image includes the base of the Lunar Module, the camera Neil Armstrong famously left behind on the Moon’s surface, and the actual tracks left by Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. [Credit: NASA/U. of Arizona]
The resolution of this image is phenomenal! You can see the actual tracks of astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the reflector they left on the Moon’s surface (used to measure the distance to the Moon very accurately by firing lasers from Earth and timing when the reflected light came back), and other things.

The second image also is from orbit, but Mars orbit. No human has yet set foot on Mars, but the image commemorates a different kind of exploration: the robotic rover Curiosity.

The Curiosity rover, as seen from Mars orbit by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The image is so clear you can see the shadow of the rover’s mast and hints of its wheels. [Credit: NASA/JPL/UA /Emily Lakdawalla]
Perhaps the image isn’t so beautiful in and of itself, but knowing what it reveals shows it to be a marvelous thing. We are seeing the wheels of a car-sized rover from Mars orbit—an image sent from another planet. Every aspect of this photo was brought to us by technology: the rover itself, and the satellite that captured its image.

Beauty—natural, artificial, intellectual—is brought forth and revealed by technology.

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