The Art in Science

Oscar Wilde once noted that aestheticism is the search for the secret of life. So what better place to turn the lens of aestheticism than images of our universe?

Pretty, pretty outer space. Credit: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI)

As Oscar Wilde said, “Aestheticism is a search after the signs of the beautiful. It is the science of the beautiful through which men seek the correlation of the arts. It is, to speak more exactly, the search after the secret of life.” So what better place to turn the lens of aestheticism than images from our universe?

Researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics have been doing just that though the Aesthetics and Astronomy project. They hoped that by studying how the public reacts to the beauty of nebulas and far-off galaxies, they can foster fascination with the science behind the images as well.

Turns out, however, that people don’t always choose beauty over science.  From The Harvard Crimson:

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.

The group’s research is ongoing, as they try to develop the best ways to convey scientific information through astronomical images, like using the “Cocktail Format” in captions — quick, memorable facts instead of lengthy, descriptive text.

Detail of "Underwater" by Stanley Goldstein

Detail of "Underwater" by Stanley Goldstein, featured in Celestial Matters

And while we’re talking about pretty things in space, we should mention an unusual art exhibit appearing next weekend. Celestial Matters features ten artworks that spent time on the International Space Station. Well-known space tourist Richard Garriott de Cayeux, who hitched a ride on a Soyuz up to the ISS in 2008, commissioned a handful of artists to create pieces for the trip.  They were given weight, size, and material restrictions, but otherwise just instructed to “present a compelling interpretation of space and how it impacts and inspires the human perspective.” The exhibition is by Zero G Art and supports the Challenger Center.

You have to head to the Lower East Side to see it in person, but at least it’s a bit more doable than low-Earth orbit.  (You can see the works online, too.)  The exhibit is on display at the Charles Bank Gallery at 196 Bowery, New York City, from Friday through Sunday, Oct. 14-16, 12 to 7 p.m.

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