The Beneficial Beauty of Astronomical Images

A satisfying and important part of our publicity work with NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory is that we produce beautiful and widely disseminated images. Unlike many other fields of science, astronomy results can generate outstanding press coverage just based on the beauty of their images alone, not the importance of the science.

Previously I have written about Chandra observations of the remains of supernova explosions, which provide some of our most attractive images, and I’ve reviewed two books by my colleagues Kim Arcand and Megan WatzkeYour Ticket to the Universe and Coloring the Universe – featuring spectacular images from Chandra and other observatories such as the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). It’s clear that these images are beautiful without having to think about what makes them beautiful.
Four Chandra images of supernova remnants, released as part of our 15th anniversary. Credit: NASA/CXC/SAO

Our longtime image processor Joe DePasquale worked on many of the images described above. He recently moved away from the Chandra X-ray Center to work at Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, and as we search for a replacement, I’ll highlight an important spinoff of our imaging work: how it can have a significant influence on the astronomical scientific community, not just the broader community.  

To start, there are the general benefits that good publicity can produce, including: 

  • Publicizing your name and research topic. For example, there is evidence that publicity can increase the number of citations for a paper, as described, for example, by the Council of Science Editors and in the journal Scientometrics. I have also heard anecdotes about successful press coverage playing a critical and positive role in the tenure approval process.
  • Pleasing your institution and funders. This can have multiple advantages, including potentially increasing the chances of future funding.
  • Inspiring others to enter your field. For example, Will Dawson was inspired by our press release on the Bullet Cluster to change the direction of his research. Our multi-wavelength view of the Bullet Cluster is one of the most popular images that we’ve released.
  • Boosting and maintaining public interest in what is often publicly funded science. An extreme example is the grassroots space advocacy effort that helping convince NASA to perform one more servicing mission of HST.
  • Offering the opportunity for a scientist to become an independent expert that science writers can use in the future.
Here are some more specific examples of how outstanding images can help scientists:

  • Giving scientists and science writers a go-to image option for discussing certain science topics. The Bullet Cluster is an obvious example for dark matter, and Tycho’s supernova remnant is often used for Type Ia supernovas, as shown in these examples from the New York Times (twice), the New Yorker and the Guardian, which all use the same composite image based on data from Chandra, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and the Calar Alto observatory.
Partial excerpts from press articles that used the same Chandra/Spitzer/Calar Alto Observatory composite image of Tycho's supernova remnant.  Credit: top left: The New York Times (article URL); top right: The New York Times (article URL); bottom left: The New Yorker (article URL); bottom right: The Guardian (article URL).

  • They provide, in some cases, a one-picture summary of your result. The detection of incredibly deep sound in the Perseus galaxy cluster is a good example of this.
A Chandra image of the central region the Perseus Galaxy Cluster (left) and a specially processed image (right) that shows ripples in the hot gas. These ripples are evidence for sound waves in this cluster. Credit: NASA/CXC/IoA/A.Fabian et al.

  • The images can be used in science talks and public talks. Here are some examples of Chandra images used in science talks at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) – where I work – and at conferences.
Examples of Chandra images being used in science talks at CfA and at conferences.

  • They allow authors to mention press coverage in talks, showing colleagues and the public that their work is of broad interest.
  • Scientists can use them in their papers, where appropriate. In this paper about G292.0+1.8, a supernova remnant, our group helped the authors with their image.
  • Scientists can adopt some of our techniques to show images, including using the color-coding we developed for the Bullet Cluster, & use of multi-wavelength images. Shown below is an example of the former.
On the left is an image of the galaxy cluster Abell 520 from Mahdavi et al. (2007) with color-coding inspired by the Bullet Cluster. Credit: A.Mahdavi et al. On the right is an image of the galaxy cluster DLSCL J0916.2+2951 from Dawson et al. (2012) that uses, I believe, our image from a Chandra release, but rotated to appear with North up and East to the left. Credit: W.Dawson et al.

Once released, good images can be used in more expansive ways. Here are some examples that I’m familiar with or that I’ve been part of:

  • Used in NASA hyperwall presentations at American Astronomical Society meetings (below left, in a talk by Belinda Wilkes, the Chandra Director) or as part of a Facebook live event using the “Solar Wall” at CfA (below right).
Credit: P.Edmonds

  • Used in web banners and for the covers of science magazines, science journals and newspaper webpages, as shown here.
Credit: American Astronomical Society, Astronomy Magazine, The New York Times, National Geographic, The Astrophysical Journal, The Washington Post, Nature and Nature Astronomy,

We’re proud of the impact we can have. It’s particularly satisfying to tackle a difficult imaging project and generate an image that goes well beyond what the scientist has produced, while maintaining scientific accuracy. An outstanding example of this is our image of the galaxy cluster MACS J0717.5+3745, where I show here the image from the science paper and below it the image that we generated. A senior author on this paper told us in various emails: “this image is so visually stunning”, “superb job”, “looks fabulous” and “this is *spectacular*”. 

Before (top): A combination of Figure 1 and Figure 2 from Ma et al. (2009) showing the galaxy cluster MACS J0717.5+3745. Credit: C-J Ma et al. After (bottom): Our Chandra image of MACS J0717.5+3745 based on the same data. Credit: X-ray (NASA/CXC/IfA/C. Ma et al.); Optical (NASA/STScI/IfA/C. Ma et al.)

This image has been widely used, including in this recent advertisement for a talk (note the image was flipped around by 180 degrees).

Credit: University College London

Despite recognition and success like this, I think the scientific community could go further in capitalizing on our work. I still see scientists using their own images in talks and in papers, rather than our more attractive images, in cases where they are not making a specific science point that their image better addresses. Recently I’ve spotted several examples of this, but I won’t shame the scientists by showing the examples here.

Of course, our target audience is much wider than the scientific one. It’s only this large audience that can enable an image to go viral, as one did in 2009 for B1509-58, an X-ray nebula surrounding a pulsar. We used a title of “A Young Pulsar Shows Its Hand” without invoking a deity, but it soon became known as the “Hand of God”, which led to online polls, as reported by Alan Boyle, asking whether this structure was some kind of divine revelation, or just a natural phenomenon. This then led to a campaign by a self-described “godless liberal” blogger, P.Z. Myers, to bias these polls in favor of the natural phenomenon possibility. One might say this coverage veered away from discussing the effects of rapidly spinning neutron stars with strong magnetic fields.

B1509-58. Credit: NASA/CXC/SAO/P.Slane et al.

CNN didn’t mention God in their article about the image, but did acknowledge the pareidolia, and talked to Pat Slane from CfA about his work on this object. This wasn’t a traditional way for us to get one of our scientists on TV, nor be covered by Alan Boyle and other science writers such as Phil Plait (see “The Cosmic Hand of Destruction”) and Dave Mosher. However, we were happy to see widespread discussion of pulsar science, especially because it’s generally harder to get good press coverage for neutron star results than black hole results. This vividly demonstrated the power of a beautiful image.


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