“Visualizing” Astronomy

Geez, everyone’s getting into “visualizing” nowadays! Harvard’s Center for Astrophysics (CfA) just announced its “Visualizing Astronomy“ lecture series, an effort which I commend.

That said, looking at the image above, which runs as a little banner at the bottom of the aforementioned page, gives me pause. All gorgeous pictures, which seem to map one-to-one to the first four presenters in the series… At least, I recognize two off the bat. First on the left, we have Robert Hurt’s Orion Nebula (with a bit of Zoltan Levay’s Hubble version thrown in), right next to Travis Rector’s Rosette Nebula. And, okay, I recognize the one on the right as well: the recent Spitzer-Hubble-Chandra image of M82, which intersects with Robert Hurt and Zoltan Levay and (I guess) Daniel Wang, since he works with Chandra. The second from the right… I’m sure I could dig it up if I had the time, but I’m thinking I can rely on a reader (or two) to set me straight (as it were).

But here’s the point I want to make. All noble images, all four of ’em! But to have them represent “visualizing astronomy” is like having photos of animals (all shown at the same scale, no less, from amoebae to ants to elephants) represent visualizing zoology! The process of visualization seems to me so much more complex, so much richer than compositing imagery of various wavelengths (again, a noble aspect of the endeavor, but only one aspect) that I can only look upon these four wee images with a little sadness. What about visualizations of three-dimensional datasets, near and dear to my heart? What about diagrams and charts, however maligned they may be? What about space art, such as it is? Dang it, there’s a universe of visualization opportunities out there! And CfA, as the text on the lecture page suggests, intersects with many such efforts.

The word “visualize” sounds good. It has a ring to it. People take notice when they hear it. I know, after all, it’s part of my title. But we should make sure it maintains its aura, its mystique, by not curtailing its breadth of meaning.

This, BTW, is a small community. I’ve probably just offended somebody I know (and like). Sigh.