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Aesthetics and Astronomy

Narrator (April Hobart, CXC)
Every year, hundreds of astronomical images are released to the general public by the many telescopes on the ground and in space - including the Chandra, Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes -- that observe the Universe. These images span the entire electromagnetic spectrum, mostly representing light and phenomena that cannot be detected by the human eye.

One question that hasn't been fully researched is how does the public perceive these images? To explore this topic, a group from Chandra, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, and experts in the field of aesthetics have formed the Aesthetics and Astronomy group - known as the A&A project -- to explore these issues and more. Aesthetics from a psychological perspective is the study of all things beautiful whether art or not, and all things art whether beautiful or not.

Lisa Smith:
I'm Lisa Smith. I'm a professor of education at the University of Otago in New Zealand, and joining me on this podcast is my husband and colleague, Professor Jeffrey Smith, who's also a professor of education at the University of Otago. We study the psychology of aesthetics.

Jeff Smith:
For about 20 years, Lisa and I were the Office of Research and Evaluation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. We became interested - and developed a research programme - around how people look at art and learn from it. NASA imagery may seem rather different from what is displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but there are commonalities between art and astronomical images, particularly in how they reflect on questions of aesthetics, perception, and learning.

Once the A&A group was formed, the next step was to determine just what were the most interesting questions that we could ask and, we hope, answer.

There was a real desire to study how people understood these science images and how they learned from the accompanying materials. The A&A team wanted to ask questions like: How do we learn from these images? How much do variations in presentation, such as colour differences or the type of explanation, affect comprehension? And, are there differences between experts and novices in terms of what they take away from the images?

Jeff Smith:
Designing the research for this study was rather involved. We took ideas from our research in museum settings and also from the literature on the psychology of aesthetics and research being conducted online and tried to blend these together to look at astronomical imagery, which was particularly challenging for us because Lisa and I are not astrophysicists, so we don't speak the same language as they do in astrophysics. However we learned from the other members of our group, and it's proved to be a good collaboration for us.

The manuscript in science communication reports the results of our first study. We ran an online survey linked from the Astronomy Picture of the Day web site. We had an overwhelming reaction of over 10,000 responses in one week. We also held a number of focus groups at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The results yielded some interesting findings and some ideas to implement immediately.

Lisa Smith:
Some of the major findings were that there is a tendency for novices to work from aesthetics to science, and a tendency for astrophysicists to work from science to aesthetics. Astrophysicists look toward the scientific communication of the image - why has the image been created, what is being communicated by it. On the other hand, the novices are more oriented toward learning more about the image and about the science that underlies it. But both groups are interested in the issue of just what is being presented. And the novices wanted to learn how to look at the images the same way that the scientists look at them.

Jeff Smith:
One of the really interesting findings of this study is that language that is conversational and engaging in nature, that anticipates an engaged and intelligent, but not necessarily sophisticated audience, seems to be the best way to provide information about these images, especially to non-experts. Another thing that we've found is that providing a sense of scale on the object that people are looking at, giving them an idea of how big it is, is helpful not only to novices, but to experts alike. Finally, we're finding that color greatly enhances these images, but we're also finding that the non-experts interpret this color in ways very different from how the person who created the image intended it to be interpreted.

Within a few months of participating in the focus groups, the Education and Public Outreach group for the Chandra X-ray Observatory Center began work on implementing some of the ideas coming out of the research. Some of these applications on the Chandra web site were relatively straight-forward, like having interactive labeling on the images, and some were more creative, like introducing an interactive multiwavelength image feature that allows the user to move from one color or wavelength to the next to "build" the complete image composite and "see" how it was made. Feedback on these innovations has been very positive.

Jeff Smith:
We've recently started work on a new study, funded by the Smithsonian that's looking at how people understand astronomical images and content across different media delivery: web, mobile, traditional print, and large-format print. We've been focusing on questions of aesthetic appeal, and understanding of these rather unfamiliar objects. And we hope to begin work soon on an eye-movement study to develop an idea of how experts and novices differ on how they go about scanning astronomical images.

Whether through a microscope or a telescope or some other instrument, the data of modern science continually challenge our ability to process and absorb new and different types of information. We hope the unique partnership of A&A, which brings space science from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and other telescopes, together with aesthetics expertise, will help us increase engagement with, appreciation for, and understanding of the exciting science being done today.

If you are interested in participating in A&A research, please visit us at