Researchers Merge Art and Science

Researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics are turning their attention to something even the most advanced telescopes can’t detect: the art in their science.

As technology generates better representations of far-off astronomical events, the Aesthetics and Astronomy project is studying how the public reacts to these images. By determining whether public interest in astronomy is more aesthetic or scientific in nature, the project hopes to develop effective ways of communicating astronomical discoveries to the general public, according to visualization coordinator Kimberly Kowal Arcand, who leads the project along with CfA astrophysicists Jay A. Bookbinder and Randall Smith.

The popularity of websites such as NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day shows that celestial images are compelling to the general public, but A&A researchers initially thought that this attention was solely aesthetic in nature.

The results of surveys and focus groups conducted by A&A researchers, however, contradicted this theory. People responded more positively to images that were accompanied by an explanation, suggesting curiosity about the nature of the celestial event or object pictured, according to Smith.

“There is a devaluing when you separate out function and form,” Arcand said.

The A&A researchers said they believe that an understanding of the scientific nature of astronomical imagery can let people more fully appreciate its beauty—and conversely, that its aesthetic appeal can increase appreciation of the science.

With this fundamental principle, the A&A project has begun to develop and test ways of further engaging the public with astronomical images, such as the inclusion of captions, question-and-answer formatted information, and what Smith calls the “Cocktail Format”—short, memorable facts that a viewer might later drop at a cocktail party.

“We are trying to find ways of livening it up, bringing the viewer in,” Smith said.

While these fun facts can be entertaining as well as informative, the project also seeks to address misunderstandings between the astrophysics community and the general public. For example, A&A researchers found that most people associate the color red with high temperatures, while most astrophysicists understand that blue represents the higher temperature in most deep space images.

The A&A project hopes to develop ways of closing this knowledge gap between experts and non-experts, Smith said. By tying the science of their work with something accessible to everybody—aesthetics—the researchers are bringing the celestial ever closer to home.

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