Aesthetics and Astronomy: Studying the Public’s Perception and Understanding of Imagery From Space

Wednesday, September 1, 2010
Resource Type:
Peer-reviewed article | Research Products
Environment Type: 
Media and Technology, Websites, Mobile Apps, and Online Media
General Public | Scientists
Education and learning science | Space science
University of Otago, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Some 400 years after Galileo, modern telescopes have enabled humanity to "see" what the natural eye cannot. Astronomical images today contain information about incredibly large objects located across vast distances and reveal information found in "invisible" radiation ranging from radio waves to X-rays. The current generation of telescopes has created an explosion of images available for the public to explore. This has, importantly, coincided with the maturation of the Internet. Every major telescope has a web site, often with an extensive gallery of images. New and free downloadable tools exist for members of the public to explore astronomical data and even create their own images. In short, a new era of an accessible universe has been entered, in which the public can participate and explore like never before. But there is a severe lack of scholarly and robust studies to probe how people - especially non-experts - perceive these images and the information they attempt to convey. Most astronomical images for the public have been processed (e.g., color choices, artifact removal, smoothing, cropping/field-of-view shown) to strike a balance between the science being highlighted and the aesthetics designed to engage the public. However, the extent to which these choices affect perception and comprehension is, at best, poorly understood. The goal of the studies presented here was to begin a program of research to better understand how people perceive astronomical images, and how such images, and the explanatory material that accompanies them, can best be presented to the public in terms of understanding, appreciation, and enjoyment of the images and the science that underlies them.

Publication Name: 
Science Communication

Team Members

Lisa SmithLisa SmithAuthor
Jeffrey SmithJeffrey SmithAuthor
Randall SmithRandall SmithAuthor
Jay BookbinderJay BookbinderAuthor
Kelly KeachKelly KeachAuthor

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