Are These NASA Images Art or Science?

Nora Landes
Jan 10, 2017 9:30PM

Dawn of the Large Hadron Collider. Photo: Maximilien Brice, CERN, via NASA.

Photography and science have long been intertwined bedfellows, helping to shape the way we look at the world. Scientists use photography to see what they cannot see with the naked eye, and to document natural phenomena or the processes behind their research. Our understanding of outer space is as dependent on images sent to Earth from the Hubble Space Telescope as our understanding of our own bodies is dependent on X-rays. In these cases, photographic images serve to mediate the human experience of the external world, making visible what lies beyond human perception.

Photography is also an instrumental tool in communicating what goes on within the scientific fields to the broader public. “We’re not so separate from science as we used to be,” said the writer and curator Marvin Heiferman, who has developed exhibitions and programs examining the relationship between photography, science, and visual culture. This premise lies at the heart of Seeing Science: Photography, Science and Visual Culture, a yearlong project produced and curated by Heiferman in conjunction with the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Though the project was initiated and sponsored by Maryland’s Center for Art, Design & Visual Culture (CADVC), it’s largely taking place outside of the art world. Since its launch in September, the Seeing Science website has published an interactive timeline, short essays on how filmmakers and illustrated textbooks mold our vision of science, and weekly mini exhibitions that illustrate the myriad uses of scientific photography through a curated selection of images.

But Heiferman stresses that science and art have much in common. “The discussions I was having with people in the sciences were particularly interesting to me, because they loved images as much as artists did, but loved them in different ways and for different reasons,” he said. “The more I talked to scientists, the more parallels I saw between scientists and artists in terms of their curiosity, in terms of their enthusiasm, in terms of their willingness to go and try to figure the world out.” 

Left: Simulated Van Allen Belts. Right: The photo shows the “energy flash” when a projectile launched at speeds up to 17,000 mph impacts a solid surface at the Hypervelocity Ballistic Range at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Mountain View, California. Photos via NASA.


Arguably, as a university initiative and an online resource, Seeing Science has the capacity to reach a far greater audience than your typical museum show. Last month, Seeing Science partnered with media literacy platform Reading the Pictures to present a panel discussion live via Google Hangout that brought together a group of specialists from across the science and media worlds to analyze 10 images featuring subjects ranging from NASA astronauts, to the Large Hadron Collider, to an AI robot named Pepper.

Yet as the panelists picked apart each photo, the conversation quickly turned toward the effectiveness of photography in conveying scientific content. In fact, photography at times seems at odds with the objects of science. In simple terms, while science looks to explain universal truths, photography inherently crafts narratives from a single vantage point. Photography is sometimes unable to express the complexity and nuance of science.

Equally, some scientific images are extremely open-ended, prompting a vast array of interpretations and responses. While microscopic images of genetically modified embryos may signal a future without inheritable diseases to some, for instance, others may see in them a gateway to unethical eugenic practices. The image strains to communicate these varied points of view. Some of the greatest debates of recent decades—from climate change to abortion—have been fueled by scientific photographs.

And yet, in spite of this contentiousness, there is still beauty to be found in scientific photography, one which does not necessarily negate its ability to inform. “There was an interesting PhD thesis back many years ago comparing these Hubble images to landscape paintings,” Hubble Heritage project manager Max Mutchler said during the online discussion. “That’s how we get our bearings. We think of this the way we might think of a mountain range or an Ansel Adams photo… You can always aestheticize these pictures.”

Left: The Carina Nebula Pillar. Photo: NASAESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team, via NASA; Right: The Eagle Nebula’s “Pillars of Creation.” Photo: NASAESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), via NASA.

Heiferman agrees that the beauty of scientific images isn’t inherently a problem, but can come with the risk of viewers being seduced by them, disarming their rational faculties of analysis. “You can look at pictures of cells and you can look at pictures of planets, and they are beautiful. Is there a danger in that? It depends on who’s looking and who’s thinking and what they do based on that response.”

In its most recent call for new astronauts, NASA received nearly three times the number of applicants than it did previously. Heiferman credits this to NASA’s presence on social media, and the popularity of the organization’s images. The beauty of scientific imagery can serve an important purpose: to inspire participation. “There used to be, in people’s minds, a separation between the science community and themselves, but in the 21st century that dissipates a little bit,” Heiferman said.

The ubiquity of technology has granted us greater access to the scientific fields, while also allowing us to be active contributors. “I think there’s a much broader public interest in the sciences, because I think people are aware of how it impacts their lives,” Heiferman remarked, “and also, because of photographic imagery, we have a sense of what people in the sciences are doing, and what that looks like, and what those people look like.”

Nora Landes