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Pictures from space, a meeting between art and science

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Days ago, many newspapers, including ours, talked about the space photos taken by James Webb Space Telescope. They are undoubtedly gorgeous images that have left us speechless, but do they really represent the real side of the universe?

In fact, any camera modifies the colors we see in some way: for example, several people were selling an item online and received a complaint because the color was not like the picture. There is no ill will: the camera simply did not capture the exact true color, and then the buyer’s monitor may have been placed in it, which in turn distorted the colors (the graphs, for example, used a device called a calibrator). Screen colors are as objective as possible).
Not only this: in color perception there can also be significant differences from one individual to another because, just as with cameras, the eyes do not see in the same way, even without the pathological infringement, as in the case of color-blind people.

If we talk about images coming from space, then the discrepancy between the real color and the photo recovery increases significantly, because it is photographed using certain technologies, for example, appropriate infrared sensors or filters, So the color photos are only later in the editing stage. But how do you decide which colors to use? Above all, what is the effect of this choice On the imagination of the recipients? We ask Elisabetta Bonora, a celebrity scholar who specializes in spatial image editing.

First we need to clarify what is meant by real color. “Bonora explains that color itself is a type of visual sensation, that is, the way in which the brain of living organisms responds to stimulation of electromagnetic radiation in a certain range of wavelengths, and thus the human eye works in Domain Specific, which is called the visible spectrum. Then there is a letter Color rendering, which is obviously not the same for everyone and can change not only from species to species but also between humans: It depends not only on our visual abilities but is also related, for example, to our state of mind. ”
So the true color is the color that is not mediated by any device, yet it is still 100% subjective. Edited and restored photos as we’ve seen them these days, except that On a scientific level, it is less useful, because it does not return all the information collected by an instrument sent into space. However, this data will be visually difficult for the average person, and in this sense the edited images help bring citizenship closer to science.
Then Bonora gives the example of Mars: we imagine it to be a very bright, bright red color, yet it is likely that the first humans to land on this planet would find an auroral atmosphere, since our eye does not have the same artificial capabilities. To amplify the photons, so the images that reach us may be very different from those captured by the human eye.

Then there are the edited images, which allow us to appreciate features that would otherwise not be visible to our eyes This allows us to estimate wavelengths that are alien to our own Domain Visible. All this is highlighted by the editorial participants, combining images taken at different wavelengths (some of them, in fact, are not visible to the human eye but are able to provide scientists with more information). “It’s a long task – explains Bonora – because a single image can consist of hundreds of frames per channel, i.e. for red, green and blue, and these frames go stacked correctly to get a good result, because everything in space is moving and even a second between one shot and another can make a huge difference.”

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However, this artificial coloring sparked some controversy.

some Art historians, in particular, have identified in the NASA painting some similarities with those in the paintings recounting the conquest of the West. So the hypothesis was put forward that these paintings could direct the perception of the recipient of the images towards certain messages.
However, according to Bonora, it is a case of pareidolia, that phenomenon that leads us to see known forms with unknown forms, such as when we say that a cloud looks exactly like a hare. In this case it would be chromatic pareidolia: Indeed One panel is chosen instead of another to facilitate image analysis and interpretation, and to highlight details as much as possiblein addition to providing an aesthetically pleasing result, especially since many missions make the raw data available to the public (there are also Those of Web), that is, those hundreds of images that are superimposed to give the audience the images they will see on websites and magazines.
“These photos – concludes Bonora – are a product where science and art meet. I think whoever edits these photos must have a certain artistic sensibility, because there is a great job of cleaning up the photos and bringing out the details. Scientifically interesting photos are actually very beautiful in their own right. and symmetrical like paintings.” In short, science, in addition to all other advantages, can sometimes be very beautiful and aesthetically pleasing!

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