Invisible Numbers Are the Most Beautiful Part of Every ‘Space’ Image

Invisible Numbers Are the Most Beautiful Part of Every ‘Space’ Image

Every year, millions visit Paris’s Louvre to admire Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa .. The painting’s mystery and aura attracts most people. But some behold a deeper beauty there, too–the Mona Lisa‘s hazy landscape and beguiling expression alike arise from Leonardo’s use of sfumato, a complex technique in which soft outlines emerge from many delicate layers of paint, like figures from a fog. Some of the Mona Lisa‘s layers, scientists showed in 2010, are 10 times thinner than a typical human hair.

Humans, in general, are hardwired to react to their primary senses–among which, vision is often considered the most powerful. This is why an image like the Mona Lisa , can have such a powerful emotional impact and be so visceral. The “pillars ” and the black holes’ event horizon , are iconic images in astronomy. However, what we see is largely made of numbers, rather than imperceptibly sheer sheens or paint. These heavenly vistas are only a fraction of the amazing data that astronomers use when studying the sky. It is the infinitesimal number of numerical data that tells us about the universe that we learn from.

For example, consider a recent study revealing that a nearby sunlike star is orbiting a small black hole. The pair is locked in a twirling dance only 1,565 light-years away, meaning that the star emitted the light we now observe just before the fall of the Roman Empire. This discovery breaks the record for closest black hole ever discovered and suggests that there are many other dark objects within the Milky Way. This black hole is invisible to both our telescopes and eyes, so no one has seen it directly. It will always be an invisible companion, writhing the orbit of its star partner. These eerie pirouettes were detected by astronomers using the Gaia Satellite , to analyze the precise data and reveal the star’s periodic motion. Gaia produces purely numerical data, unlike Hubble and James Webb space telescopes which are equipped with sophisticated cameras to capture stunning images of celestial fireworks. Astronomers still make stunning, world-changing discoveries from these invisible numbers. They use mathematical models to describe reality.

This fact is not limited to the modern world. In 1846, Johann Gottfried Galle discovered Neptune, our solar system’s eighth planet, based on predictions made the previous year by the French astronomer Urbain Le Verrier. Le Verrier had noticed that Uranus’ orbit, the farthest planet, was being strangely disturbed by a mysterious mass. He then used excruciating numerical calculations to pinpoint the orbit of the perturber and where it should be seen in the sky. Galle pointed his telescope at Neptune and saw it as a tremulous dot against the background stars. The solar system was suddenly transformed.

Yet, images are still the most popular form of publicizing scientific discoveries–even if they are not related to astronomy. Data may be sacred in the church of science, but images are the true disciples. Seeing is believing. This fact is evident by comparing two recent and groundbreaking discoveries: the first detection of gravitational waves, announced in February 2016, and the first image of the event horizon of a black hole, in April 2019. Both breakthroughs were made at similar times and were both groundbreaking. The former produced mostly numerical data and was soon awarded a Nobel Prize, while the latter made an “image” among many other data. Unsurprisingly, the image of the black hole generated almost seven times more Internet traffic than the detection of gravitational waves–even after accounting for a higher background of Internet searches for black holes instead of gravitational waves.

What is special about astronomical imagery? Scientists and the public have different goals and approaches. Astronomers consider all images to be numerical data. A star may appear as a collection of pixels on a telescope’s lens, but even that single dot can reveal its intrinsic luminosity, temperature, and other details. A sprawling multigigapixel panorama of a majestic galaxy, such as the one in the constellation of Andromeda, can, of course, inspire contemplative awe about our place in the universe. Astronomers can also use these images to measure fundamental properties of a galaxy, such as its size or distribution of stars.

In the end, both visual and unvisual data represent the reality of our world. Nonvisual data, on the other hand, requires an interface, a mathematical model to describe reality. Without a theory about gravitation, the waltz data of a star or black hole would not be meaningful. If Einstein’s general theory about relativity was not used, it would be difficult to understand the interferometric data that led directly to the detection gravitational waves.

In his influential essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?,” the American philosopher Thomas Nagel argues that “Lightning has an objective character that is not exhausted by its visual appearance, and this can be investigated by a Martian without vision. It has a more objective nature than what is visible in its visual appearance.” (Emphasis added.) The appearance of lightning and a mathematical representation of the electromagnetic field’s variations are both part of the same reality.

Scientists are trained to see reality through the use of models. An astronomer can find a graph showing a meandering curve, which is proof of a gravitational waves rippling through detectors, as exciting as watching a movie that depicts the merger of two black hole.

This fact expands the discussion to a new level: What is the role of astronomers when communicating with the public? It is ultimately to show and communicate the beauty of the universe to all by making it accessible to everyone. Sometimes, this requires explaining the intricacies and complexities of scientific studies. These often go beyond stunning images. Complex mathematics is what gives space photos their beauty. A clock can measure time precisely because of its intricate clockwork. These images have a special charm.

This is an opinion and analysis piece. Scientific American does not necessarily endorse the views expressed in this article.


    Fabio Pacucci is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, where he holds the Clay and Black Hole Initiative fellowships. Follow Fabio Pacucci on Twitter

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