July 29, 2022, by Brigitte Nerlich

The dance of creation and the music of the stars

Everybody will now have seen pictures of the cosmos beamed down to earth by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). These images provoked admiration, awe and wonder – they were indeed sublime. In this post won’t explore these cosmic images themselves but some of the language that was used to talk about them.

Deep field

As summarised on many sites, the first image to be released by the JWST was the deepest infrared image of the distant Universe ever produced. Following in the footsteps of the Hubble Deep Field, the image has become known as Webb’s First Deep Field. The importance of this image lies in the fact that when looking at it, we can stare back deeply into the distant past of the universe, at how the universe began. This triggered a language of creation and origins, of birth, light and dawn, or as Marcus Chown said, for example – we can see “when the first stars switched on, ending the cosmic dark age which began when the big bang fireball faded away.”

Southern Ring Nebula

The next image I saw was that of The Southern Ring Nebula, NGC 3132, or “Eight-Burst” nebula, which was talked about in terms of death – not stars being born, but stars dying. “A dim star at the center of the Southern Ring Nebula was found for the first time to be cloaked in dust, as it spews out rings of gas and dust in its death throes.” Although the metaphor of a dance was more consistently used when people wrote or talked about the next image, we also find it in descriptions of this nebula: “Right in the center of the cosmic eye, there are clearly two stars present. Next to the brighter one, we can see the dying one that caused the nebula — the dot that looks redder on the left. This star duo had been theorized to exist in the past… dancing around one another in an intergalactic waltz.”

Stephan’s Quintet

The third image was that of a group of galaxies known as Stephan’s Quintet, discovered by Édouard Stephan in 1877 at the Marseille Observatory. This is a compact galaxy group located 290 million lightyears away in the constellation Pegasus. For many, me included, this was one of the most striking images and one that provoked the most poetic outpouring in terms of dance and music.

It is a really dynamic picture. Many described it as a ‘cosmic’ or ‘gravitational dance’. As NASA said: “Four of the five galaxies within the quintet are locked in a cosmic dance of repeated close encounters.” And: “Galaxies collide in Stephan’s Quintet, pulling and stretching each other in a gravitational dance.”

But, of course, the name of the cluster also makes us think of music, indeed of a “visual symphony“. One can almost hear the dance music in the background – indeed, one can almost catch the harmony of the spheres, the “cosmic sonata” attributed to Pythagoras, when looking at this image. It is not surprising that this galaxy cluster, which had already been pictured by Hubble, inspired some actual music, which you can listen to here.

Carina Nebula

The last of the four early images was the striking image of a stellar landscape – the Carina Nebula, a glowing cosmic cloud found about 7,600 lightyears away in the southern hemisphere constellation Carina, also called the “Cosmic Cliffs” – see featured image.

Like the Pillars of Creation, captured by Hubble in 1995, this is a landscape, indeed a “sparkling landscape of baby stars” rendered in an aesthetic style familiar to viewers, as explored by Elizabeth Kessler in her book Picturing the Cosmos: Hubble Space Telescope Images and the Astronomical Sublime (whose cover seems to be adorned with the Carina Nebula as captured by Hubble) (for deeper insights see reviews by McCray and Shyr).

This colouring is carried out by a team of expert who ‘painted’ the Carina Nebula’s mountains, cliffs and valleys in browns, yellows and gold, against a blue starry starry sky. Choosing these colours has good scientific reasons, but they are also the colours of romantic landscape paintings. It is therefore not surprising to find people say things like: “This is art,” Pontoppidan said. “I really wanted to have that landscape. It has that contrast. We have the blue. We have golden. There’s dark. There’s bright. There’s just a sharp image.”

In the description of this image, we hear about cosmic mountains, cliffs and valleys, but also about Carina being a ‘stellar nursery’ and even about “sparkling new infants in this stellar nursery”, bringing us back to the language of “stellar birth and death“. As Katie Mack said when writing about the JWST image: “Where Hubble’s view showed us the edges of the clouds, JWST lets us peer within, to watch the process of creation as it happens, to see, like never before, how new light is born from the stuff of the stars.” But with birth comes death and some described Carina “as a cloud of gas and dust that is the birthplace and graveyard of stars”.

The poetry of astronomy

To talk about the cosmos, we have to use ordinary language, but that ordinary language becomes rather artistic when confronted with cosmic beauty and meets up with other arts, like painting and music. When people talk about the new JWST images, the sources of verbal inspirations derive from what we know and how we talk about birth and death and evolution, nurseries and graveyards, about landscapes, real and artistic, about cliffs and valleys and mountains. Some of that inspiration also comes from what we know about colour conventions used when painting landscapes. Sometimes a ‘monster’ blackhole is thrown into that beautiful mix that swallows all this up – an “event of galactic gluttony”.

This metaphorical language is, of course, not totally new – and it might be a good idea to look at the coverage of the early Hubble images and see what language was used there. It seems as if astronomers have ‘always’ talked about the birth and death of stars in the context of star formation. Nebulae are quite conventionally called ‘stellar nurseries’. It would be interesting to find out when astronomers started to talk in that way, though. They can be more creative too, when they talk about “cosmic skeletons dancing in a stellar graveyard” (2017) or about “cool costumers in the stellar graveyard” (2005).

Incidentally, as Jean-Pierre Luminet has pointed out: “The term of cosmos is etymologically related to æsthetics – just as cosmetics. At the times of Homer and Hesiod, it was employed to describe the ornaments, physical or moral attraction, order, poetry, truth. Pythagoras and Plato adopted the word to indicate the whole universe. Consequently the cosmos, associated with the logos, became synonymous with a majestic and imposing universe, governed by beauty, harmony, order, and understandable to human’s mind.”

Beauty in an ugly world

Stellar language can be rather poetic and as beautiful as the images of the cosmos it describes. We should be grateful to the JWST for allowing us to revel in this verbal and visual beauty. As Caleb Scharf wrote a few days ago: “Occasionally our species manages to accomplish something that every single one of us (except perhaps for the most misanthropic curmudgeons) can enjoy as a sign that all hope is not lost, that we can still reach for the sublime.”

The JWST that brought us these images could itself never have been born had it not been for the collaborative cosmic dance of scientists and engineers all over the world. It is a shame that this is the same world that, at the moment, is tearing itself apart through discord and disharmony, which might bring about the death of humanity and with it of the knowledge that there is such sublime cosmic beauty out there.

PS: Just when I had finished drafting this post, I came across an article entitled ‘Conducting the cosmos’, based on a recent interview with Kimberley Arcand, visualisation scientist and emerging tech lead for NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. She led a project that turned the stuff of space, especially black holes, into music – black holes are, it seems, not just monsters, but they are singing to us. Have a look/listen!

PSS: The pillars of creation have now been captured by the James Webb!! This image evokes quite different comparisons. As Matthew Cobb tweeted: “A giant’s hand, clawing at the fabric of the universe.”

Image: Carina Nebula, NASA, Flickr

Posted in images and visualisationsLanguageMetaphorsspacevisualisationwonder