Staring at the Sun
Certain images, like this one taken of Earth from the Apollo 17 spacecraft in 1972 – depicting a fragile blue marble in a vast ocean of darkness – utterly alter (or should) our understanding of distance, place, proportion – of the human endeavor itself.
Less heralded, certainly more abstract, but no less powerful in its import for our understanding of scale, is the “deep field” photograph taken in 2003 by the Hubble Space Telescope (below). The photograph, a capture of the oldest visible light in the universe, shows a menagerie of 10,000 or so galaxies in various stages of development. The light gathered from a minute slice of sky in the constellation Fornax – the Furnace – is 13 billion years old, generated in the first 800 million years after the Big Bang. (The universe itself is estimated to be 13.75 billion years old.) According to the Hubble researchers who peered through the keyhole of time ,”[the image] covers a speck of the sky only about the width of a dime located 75 feet away.”
To use the hackneyed but highly useful analogy of compressing the age of the universe to the length of a single day – setting the time of the initial paroxysm at precisely midnight – the Hubble image gives a glimpse back to about 1:24am. This is the pre-dawn firmament, the early dance of matter, the first pirouettes of a vastly beautiful and incomprehensibly vast universe.
There are other images that use a different kind of perspective to offer perspective. By juxtaposing the minute and the massive, the known and the partly known, the distant and proximal, these pictures illustrate the small gestures of man played out against the grand backdrop of the cosmos. Take, for example, the images below captured by photographer Thierry Legault, which show the Space Shuttle Atlantis in transit against the Sun with the Hubble Space Telescope in tow.
What to make of these? Perhaps, as some have said, they make visible our dogged quest to understand the precarious place we inhabit in the vast gulf of space-time. Perhaps they are clear renderings of our technological audacity – a small fuselage and wing flicked up in front of an indifferent yellow eye. Perhaps they are an allusion to Icarus (though hardcore science folk will surely dispute such an analogy, saying that the shuttle only appears close to the sun, that it is a trick of optics – a “forced” perspective).
Whatever symbolic dressing we care to drizzle upon them, these images are literally about human virtuosity. Legault, the photographer, had an eighth of a second to capture these photographs. Indeed, he used an excellent telescope and camera, along with some fancy software to carry them off. But to me, a layman-in-awe, the challenge seems no less daunting than capturing a dust particle in my living room as it meanders across the face of a streetlamp burning across the street.
But Legault’s images are more than a technical triumph. They are images stripped to essence – light and shadow. They are a pure expression of space and time.
They are art.
The perspective offered in these pictures reminds me of nothing more than the view you get on a clear day driving from Denver International Airport toward downtown. The Rockies tyrannize the western horizon. One must strain to pinpoint the edifices of the Denver skyline – barely discernible at 600 and 700 feet tall. From this distance they are little more than brief metallic flickers on a dry plain running to the ramparts of the Front Range. As you fix your gaze on the mountains (which inevitably you will because, let’s face it, the dusty, relentless sprawl of Denver intruding into the foreground is a stark and confounding sight and is certainly not something to be reckoned with while driving), the 8,000 and 9,000 foot peaks, the “foothills” of the Front Range, rise in true relief against the Mount Evans massif and the Inidan Peaks, which jag upward to 13,000 and 14,000 feet.
Reliable perspective requires distance – spatial or temporal. From closer up, say, downtown Boulder, the tippy-tops of the high peaks are barely seen, obscured by the smaller summits before them. (In the same way that, from a certain vantage, the moon might be obscured by the nose cone of the Space Shuttle as it stands erect on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral.)
But from farther back, true scales become evident. The Flatirons are small swoops of blue, green and rust – a little more than half the height of the snow-topped ranges beyond.
The view of Denver, however, is different. Though perceptible in its totality (which is to say in its sprawl), it is microbic in its action, unknowable in its particulars. It is a centerless agglomeration of synthetic galaxies; a lurching system, half-living, half-dead; a cluttered whirl of a hundred thousand disjointed parts; a cosmos of speed, desire and consumption; a wing of the universe as remote as the one rendered in Hubble’s “deep field” images.