On April 24, 2015, we’ll celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope’s launch. In other words, Hubble has been in operation throughout the entire life of most college students today. In addition to its numerous, remarkable scientific contributions, I think everyone will agree that some of the images taken by Hubble are absolutely breathtaking. The effect they have on viewers is, on one hand, a result of their sheer visual beauty and, on the other, a consequence of the realization that the objects being imaged truly exist in our wonderfully complex cosmos. This fusion of evocative reality with artistic rendering is simply irresistible.
We sometimes forget that it took even standard photography quite a while to come into its own as a bona fide art form. As late as 1955, a critic for The New York Times still insisted on describing a photography exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art as merely “the folk art of our time.” For those, however, who continue to believe that all issues are ultimately decided by monetary worth, the debate over photography was settled for good in 1993, when Christie’s sold an Alfred Stieglitz photo for $398,000 at an art auction. Hubble images are all in the public domain and therefore cannot be assigned a price. Fortunately, money is not the only way in which art can be appreciated. Jonathan Jones, an art critic for the British newspaper The Guardian, boldly declared in 2000 that a Hubble photograph of a star-birth region “is one of the most flamboyantly beautiful artworks of our time.” I wholeheartedly agree. In fact, by now Hubble images have been exhibited as part of art shows both at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, and at the Palazzo Loredan in Venice, Italy.
Given that Hubble images may be regarded (at least at some level) as works of art (in addition to their immense scientific value), one may wonder which would qualify as “Hubble’s best art.” Note that here I am ignoring the importance of the images for pure scientific research, and am considering only their artistic impact. Even so, the question does not have a clear answer. In fact, it would probably be no easier to determine which Hubble’s greatest image might be than to choose Rembrandt’s or Picasso’s best painting. If I use my own (clearly subjective) judgment and select the five images that I consider to be the most visually appealing, then I come up with the images below:
Are these your favorites too? If you’re not quite sure, you can find a large selection of Hubble images here.
We all hope that the Hubble Space Telescope will continue to operate until at least 2020, and that there are more stunning images to come.
Featured image credit: NASA, ESA, M. Livio and Hubble 20th Anniversary Team (STScI)