Archive for the ‘Cool Images’ category

A Shuttered Past

November 21, 2015

I think we need some antidote to the depths of derp we’ve seen (and on this blog picked over with all the horror that follows a good look at last night’s supper this morning) coming from the Syrians Are Coming brigade of bed-wetters.

So, instead, let’s take a look at someone who used their media smarts for good — and, in doing so, helped forge the chain that led to the fact (glory be) that we have the president we do right now, serving as a bulwark against the stupid that would have toppled a lesser person.

That would be this man:


That’s Frederick Douglass, of course, in a shot taken in the 1860s.

Here he is as a younger man:


And in old age:


Those are three of the 160 surviving photographs taken of Douglass — a figure that currently ranks as the most confirmed separate portraits taken of any American in the 19th century.*  Scholars John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd and Celeste Marie-Bernier have a new book out, Picturing Frederick Douglass,  In it they use a sequence of images to drive a new biography of Douglass, and in doing so allow us to see technological change as it was lived — and used — by a brilliant observer of his own life and times.  As the authors write in the introduction, Douglass loved photography, and saw it as an exceptionally potent tool for making the world a different and better place. Douglass loved the fact that

What was the special and exclusive of the rich and great is now the privilege of all. The humblest servant girl may now possess a picture of herself such as the wealth of kings could not purchase 50 years ago.

In that context Stauffer, Trodd and Marie-Bernier make the case that Douglass saw photography as  tool to alter social reality:

Poets, prophets and reformers are all picture-makers–and this ability is the secret of their power and of their achievements. They see the what ought to be by the reflection of what is, and endeavor to remove the contradiction.

Such reasoning (and more besides) led Douglass to the photographer’s studio over and over again, actively seeking out the camera as a tool that could help him create the reality of African-American humanity, presence, significance.

Photography allowed him to be seen.  In that determined, asserted presence,  you have (it seems to me) an early herald of of the circumstances in which Barack Obama could become president.  Alas, in the fact of the racist and vicious forces with which Douglass had to contend, we can be similarly reminded that in our times the sight of a black man commanding our gaze drives too many among us into spasms of demented, terribly dangerous rage.

But put that aside for a second, and look at some fabulous images of an extraordinary — and extraordinary-looking — man.  (A few more examples.)

And if you feel the need for some open thread, well take that too.

*The runners up are cool too:  In the research for this book, the authors found George Armstrong Custer, that avatar of puffed-up vanity taking second place, with 155 portraits.  Red Cloud came next at 128, followed by Whitman and Lincoln at 127 and 126, the poet and his captain connected again.  It seems likely, according to these writers, that when further work is done, Ulysses S. Grant may trump them all, but that doesn’t change the point of what Douglass set out to do.


1.  c. 1860s

2.  c. 1850, daguerrotype

3. before 1880, Brady-Handy collection.

Start The Week With The Lord God Bird

September 8, 2014


A nice start to what might be a tolerable week* comes in the form of a message from Harvard’s rare books collection, the Houghton Library.  Its collection of 114 early J.J. Audubon drawings is now online in high resolution.  Among the treats, a depiction of two Ivory Billed Woodpeckers, the “lord god bird,” having their way with a tree.

According to the announcement, these early drawings are rare/of heightened interest because of Audubon’s practice of destroying sketches and alternate versions after selecting what he saw as the best of any subject.  The earliest images in this collection date back to when Audubon was 18, and, says Harvard, they probably survived Audubon’s rolling erasure of his tracks in the hands of one of his patrons.  In any event, the images are gorgeous, and there for the gazing.

That said, the image above is a later Audubon not from the Houghton collection, as Harvard requires permission from the curator before reusing their images. I’m asking for same; if I get it, I’ll add one from this trove.

*Hah! Who am I kidding.  There are still Republicans with actual power!

Image:  John James Audubon, Plate 66 of Birds of America, depiction of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, 1838.

For Our Own Good

August 22, 2014

If there was a golden age for American media, it was long ago and it was short.

Over at The Atlantic, Torie Rose DeGhett has an excellent, utterly unsurprising article about a photograph taken in the last hours in the first Gulf War.

The work of  the the then 28 year old  photographer Kenneth Jarecke, the image captures a fact of war hopelessly obscured by the shots that angered  Jarecke enough to postpone a planned hiatus from combat photography.  “’It was one picture after another of a sunset with camels and a tank.” — or, once combat actually began, gaudy displays of gee whiz toys, the disembodied beauty of missile exhausts, or bloodless shots of tires and twisted metal.  War as video game, or a spectacle for the folks back home.

Here’s DeGhett’s description of Jarecke’s riposte:

The Iraqi soldier died attempting to pull himself up over the dashboard of his truck. The flames engulfed his vehicle and incinerated his body, turning him to dusty ash and blackened bone. In a photograph taken soon afterward, the soldier’s hand reaches out of the shattered windshield, which frames his face and chest. The colors and textures of his hand and shoulders look like those of the scorched and rusted metal around him. Fire has destroyed most of his features, leaving behind a skeletal face, fixed in a final rictus. He stares without eyes.

Go to the link.  Look at the shot.

It’s a great photograph — great technically, and better as a work of art, in that it tells a story and commands empathy, all  in a single frame.  Most of all, though, it is essential journalism.  It said, clearly, what war costs.  It reframed — really, it guttted — the narrative of violence without pain that was so much the preferred description of the Gulf War in Washington DC.  Its viewers got to see what was done in their names.*

Or rather, it didn’t and they didn’t.  DeGhett documents the photograph’s journey from the battlefield to it’s near complete obscuration.  The in-theater Time photo editor sent it back to New York; Time passed and so did Life.  The AP in New York pulled the shot from the wire.  No one would touch it in the US, and in Europe, only the British Sunday paper The Observer, and the French daily Libération ran the image.

The key here, as DeGhett writes, is that there was no military pressure not to publish Jarecke’s photograph.  The war was over by the time his film got back to the facility in Saudi Arabia where the press pools operated.  The decision to withhold the shot from the American public was made by the American press, by editors at the major magazines, at The New York Times, at the wire service. The chokehold on information at the top of the mainstream media was tight enough back then that most newspaper editors, DeGhett reports, never saw the image, never got to make their choice to publish or hide.

You can guess the excuses.  “Think of the children!” For the more sophisticated, a jaded response:

Aidan Sullivan, the pictures editor for the British Sunday Times, told the British Journal of Photography on March 14 that he had opted instead for a wide shot of the carnage: a desert highway littered with rubble. He challenged the Observer: “We would have thought our readers could work out that a lot of people had died in those vehicles. Do you have to show it to them?”

Why yes, Mr. Sullivan, you do.

This is an old story, and as DeGhett notes, it’s not one that would likely play out the same way today.  It’s not as if, what with Twitter and ‘net journalism and the camera phones and all that, horrible images of value and images that are violence porn are not hard to find.  (As always, for each of us, YMMV in drawing the line.)  But her piece is still a very useful piece of journalism, for two reasons.  For one — the picture is really extraordinary, and it has a minatory value that exceeds the tale of the moment it was not allowed to tell.  When John McCain and Lindsay Graham and their merry band of bombers call for war here, war there, war everywhere — and even or especially when a situation like the rise of ISIS seems to a broader slice of our country to merit the attention of the US military — we should remember what such attention looks like on the ground.

For the other:  this reminds us what it looks like when the media — national press in particular — conforms its narratives to the needs of its sources, or even just to the wisdom that prevails among a handful of fallible, comfortable, Village elders.  They’re doing it still, as best they can — and their best is still pretty effective.  This shot is a reminder of that power, and the amoral disdain for the reader, the viewer, the citizenry with which that power is too often wielded.

Let me (as DeGhett does) give Jarecke the last word:

As an angry 28-year-old Jarecke wrote in American Photo in 1991: “If we’re big enough to fight a war, we should be big enough to look at it.”

*You’ll note the obvious.  Unusually for me, there is no image accompanying this post.  Jarecke’s photograph is under copyright and can be seen at the link.  No allusive work of fine art really works against that shot, I think, so, none is offered.






Raindrops Keep Falling…

December 1, 2013

I’ve always loved this passage in the introduction to M.F.K Fisher’s  memoir-cum-essay-collection The Gastronomical Me:

People ask me:  Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, and love, the way others do?

One paragraph later, she replies:

The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry.  But there is more than that.  I tseems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others.  So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writig about love and the hunger for it, and wormth and the love of it and the hunger for it….and then the warmth and ricghess of hunger satisfied….and it is all one. [ellipses n the original]

People don’t often ask me why I write about science, and not politics or economics or culture or war…the way others do.

But I’ve asked it of myself, and I find myself lining up with Fisher.*  Science is so utterly intertwined with how we live that to write about its history, its discoveries, its many discontents,  implications, way of thinking, is to interrogate politics, culture, conflict, philosophy and everything else…food included.

But still, writing about science is not just a sneaky way to comment on Republican anti-rationality or whatever; it’s not just a means to another end.  I’ve written a book about the science of climate change, and though that book is as much about politics — and human nature — as it is about carbon chemistry and Milankovitch cycles, I remember one encounter I had while researching it.

I was in the woods in mid-New Hampshire in October or so, a research forest, walking around with the scientist who’d spent a couple of decades at least measuring everything he could about that ecosystem.  We were talking about acid rain and the changes he’d been able to document, and all that you’d expect in such a conversation, and then he stopped in his tracks at a little jog in the trail.  “That’s an ash tree,” he said, pointing to what was clearly an old friend.  It was desert-highway straight, tall, in fine health.  “These are one of my favorites,” he said.  “They make baseball bats out of these, which is very satisfying to me.”

Which is to say that there is simple pleasure to be had in the scientist’s life, or better, for most of us who aren’t practicing researchers, in a science-infused view of life.  Sometimes, there’s just the fun of the imagination leaping from the forest to the diamond; sometimes it’s the joy of the puzzle;  or the adrenaline rush of the extraordinary (did you know a wolverine can bring down a moose?  I didn’t until I read this);or — and this is what I think first drew me into the story — it’s simply those moments when science offers up a glimpse of pure, disinterested, astonishing beauty.

Like this one:

blue morpho

This image was made with the help of a friend and sometime co-blogger of mine, Dr. James Bales, assistant director of MIT’s Edgerton Center and a master of high speed photography.  It shows a drop of water striking the wing of a a blue morpho butterfly.  It came about in the context of the work of a group of researchers at or recently of MIT who have been studying how to reduce the contact time between water and hydrophobic surfaces.  Cutting the interval during with sprays of water remain on such surfaces matters to applications like preventing icing on aircraft wings.

It turns out that engineering surfaces with tiny ridges does the trick — so far, the team has managed to reduce contact time by 40%, using surface configurations that can be achieved with readily available tools.  More details here.

That’s all well and good — in fact, better than.  As someone who flies pretty regularly out of Logan Airport, I’m all for anything that erodes the threat of icing.

But why the butterfly?

As Jim tells it, the group knew that they had, in essence, reinvented something nature’s been doing for a long time:  what you see happening on the blue morpho’s wing above is exactly what engineered ridges on aluminum can accomplish.  And the researchers wanted to express that realization in a way that acknowledges the elegance thus implied.  Their own images were more useful than grand, and that’s where Jim came in, with the results you see above…**

…which are to me, before anything else, simply beautiful.

From time to time I do ask myself why write about science.  An answer, not the only one, nor the whole of it, can be seen above.***

*People also rarely — never — juxtapose me with Fisher, but that’s another kettle of fish.  I read her; I get to quote her.

**For those of you who like to think about such things, Jim says that “The tricky bit is getting the lighting just right (involved finding the right angles between strobe, wing, and lens, along with a mirror on the far side of the wing from the strobe to get a good fill light) and getting the timing right.”  (That, by the way, is what good photographers say.  The tricky bits are you know, everything.)

For the ubergearheads among us, Jim reports that the image was made with a Nikon D700, mounting a 70-180mm lens (presumably Nikon’s old macro unit), with a 1.4 teleconverter, a StopShot trigger unit (from Cognysis, in the US) and an Ultra Micro Flash from LaserScribe (an outfit in the UK) which has a flash duration of approximately 10 microseconds.

***Two more images for your delectation can be found below.

All images: credit A. T. Paxson, K. Hounsell, J. W. Bales, J. C. Bird & K. Varanas, used by permission.

blue morpho 2

blue morpho 3

A Bit of Multi-Spectral Awesomeness For Your Delectation

July 9, 2013

This image has been around for a bit, but I just stumbled on it — so here you go:


Per the NASA write up, this is a collage of images from the Solar Dynamics Observatory, mostly showing measurements of light at particular wavelenths, w. a bit of other information as well.

I want my own quilt  made to that design.

As the linked material says, the point isn’t just pretty pictures.  It’s that the characteristics of the light (electromagnetic radiation) detected up and down the spectrum reveal very specific details of the processes the produced each particular emission.  See, e.g., the wonderful story of the element that was, then wasn’t, coronium.

One more thing:  this image, or rather the investment required to make all the images that go into this collage, is an example of the kind of nice thing it will be harder and harder to get the longer our current Republican party remains in existence.  Just sayin…

We Are Stardust

May 29, 2013

Via Phil Plait (aka the Bad Astronomer), this gorgeous view:


This picture of the active galaxy Centaurus A was made by Rolf Olsen, an amateur astronomer in New Zealand.  I can’t do better than Plait does in explaining why this sight is not simply beautiful, but astonishing:

The detail is amazing, and you really seriously want to embiggen it; I had to shrink it a lot to fit it on the blog. Going over the details at Olsen’s site just amazed me more and more.

First and foremost: He took these images with a 25 cm (10”) telescope that he made himself. That’s incredible. A ‘scope that small is not one you’d think you could get this kind of image with, but persistence pays off. It took a total of 43 nights across February to May of 2013 to pull this picture off.

Centaurus A is  a very interesting object — the product of galaxies in collision, it has a massive black hole gobbling up stuff in its center.  As Plait notes (with awe!), Olsen with his very modest-sized home-made telescope was able to resolve the tell tale jets that the black hole produces (see Plait’s piece for the close – ups).  I’ve done a little bit of star gazing, and I worked with Tim Ferris on the development of his Seeing in the Dark film — a kind of love note to the amateur astronomer community, so I have some sense of the skill and sheer stamina of those folks who spend night after night staring up.  And even with that as context, I can say that what Olsen does here is truly impressive.

So enjoy. Stare at that image (do hit the link for the big version — and check out Olsen’s gallery).  Note that in the shock of collision you likely get ramped-up star formation.  In star formation, you get planets.  With enough heavy elements (i.e., enough generations of stars aborning and flaming out), you get the basic chemistry of life.  Not saying there’s anyone looking back…but (allowing for the time lag)  you never know.

Consider this a cosmic open thread.

Image: Rolf Olsen, 2013, used by permission.

Just Because I Can

January 2, 2013

I’m doing what I shouldn’t here:  troll baiting.  In the version of this post up on Balloon Juice, a relentless troll whinged about the use of false color in rendering astronomical images both interpretable and beautiful.  What follows is (a) stuff I wanted to get off my chest and (b) an excuse to post some cool astronomical images.  Enjoy:

I love astronomy.  I’ve made a couple of films about telescopes, observatories, and the exploration of deep space made possible by the extraordinary instrumentation created over the last couple of decades.  Observational astronomy has undergone a true revolution in my lifetime, and we know more about our universe by direct examination now than we did before, say 1950 by an almost incomprehensibly wide margin because of the two great changes rung in by that revolution.

One of those is astronomy’s gain from the tide that lifts all boats — the incredible rise in precision engineering and the science behind it that underpins  so much of modern life, from the digitization of experience to the transformation of medical diagnostics to the tying up of the globe into an unprecedentedly swift, safe and reliable transportation network and so on.

The other truly transformative move in 20th century astronomy was (at least largely) specific to the domain of sensing, remote and direct alike:  the realization that it is possible — and important — to look up with detectors that can capture signals from anywhere on the electromagnetic spectrum from gamma rays to radio waves — and not just in the realm of the visible that has defined astronomy from Og the caveman to Hubble (and a little beyond).

Nothing new in any of this potted history, but there’s a bit of method to my madness.  The exploration of wavelengths longer than what humans can see (infrared-radio) and shorter (ultraviolet-gamma) has led to utterly new views of the universe, and insight into a whole range of physical phenomena that observations within the range of human sight could never yield.  For a quick gestalt on that point, take a look at this:


I’m not sure how easy it is to pick up the identifiers to the left of each image — but the image shows us what our galaxy looks like when examined at different points along the electromagnetic spectrum.  When we go out on a clear night (preferably at altitude, away from a city), we see something that looks like the third strip from the bottom.  Looking at that, we have essentially no idea of what’s going in the sky — all the signal to be seen everywhere else up and down the picture.

Crucially, there’s a ton of science in (or enabled by) these various views.  Emissions of light from some object are signals of some physical process happening to produce that electromagnetic emission.  If a star or a galactic center or whatever is pumping out a ton of gamma-rays, that tells us a lot about what’s happening to produce so much light at such high energies — and the same applies up and down the spectrum.

But there’s a problem, or rather a feature of the observations that lead us to the insights available only when we have a multi-spectral grasp of our surroundings.  We don’t see X-rays.  Nor radio waves, nor any light that doesn’t fall within what’s called, for obvious reasons, the optical or visual band of spectrum.  To render those images interpretable, to make them available for communication to each other, we need to perform an act of translation.  That’s what’s going on above, when you see images labelled “gamma ray” or “radio continuum” with your own eyes, dressed up in lively shades of red and yellow, purple and blue.

To some (and now I’m getting to it) such coloring is a lie, propaganda with which NASA and space scientists in general trick us into paying for the observatories in space and on earth that generate the data behind the fibs.  To sane people, it’s what you do to help you think about and understand what it is you’re looking at/for.  And if as a field there is a value placed on aesthetically rich translations of the invisible into the seen?  Well, it might be because so many astronomers were first moved to make the night sky their home by images like this:


Which is what Saturn looks like in the optical range, as observed by the Voyager II spacecraft.  (Personal note: I was hooked on stuff in the night sky from the time I saw Saturn through a large telescope at Oakland, California’s Chabot Observatory.  I was about 10.  The sight of the rings swinging into view as I sat at the eyepiece has never left me.  Public cultural goods are good.)  There’s not much science in that picture, except for the deep pleasure it offers, sufficient to move many more than one into a life’s work.

All of which is prelude to one last image.  A commenter troll in this thread spent inordinate amounts of time and blather complaining about the terrible trickery and deceit involved in Hubble Space Telescope imagery, because, after all, the only thing that comes back off that instrument are strings of 1s and 0s that reflect measurements in various bits of the optical and near infrared chunks of the spectra.  The colors are “false” — which is to say not what a naked eye would see, if it had the light gathering capacity of a 2.4 meter-mirror and the ability to stare, unblinking for the requisite amounts of time.  The naive American public must, it seems, be protected from twin illusions of knowledge and beauty, lest it thus be gulled into funding more such instruments.  Or something.

To which, at long last, I say simply, get a life.  Or perhaps more in keeping with the tone of this establishment: copulate yourself with vigor — and an oxidized agricultural implement.

To put that into visual terms, let me offer up for your viewing pleasure an utterly falsely rendered picture that is both sublime and filled with the raw material of insight:

A star between 100 and 150 more massive than the Sun, about 7,500 light years from Earth.

This is a picture of the giant star Eta Carinae, and it’s a photoshop:  the blue image is from the Hubble Space Telescope, and shows the relatively cool remnants of an eruption in 1840 that blew off about 10 solar masses, leaving between 100 and 150 times the mass of our sun behind.  The orange imagery is a false coloration (a lie!) of x-ray data gathered by another NASA orbiting observatory, the Chandra X-Ray telecsope.  That shows what happens when fast gouts of material from the explosion smash into surrounding gas and dust, collisions that heat that shroud to upwards of a million degrees, which is what produces the energetic x-ray emissions.  The shape of those observations marks the limit of the region in which this desperately unstable star is interacting with its environment.

Eta Carinae attracts a lot of attention because it is a prime candidate to go supernova — and if/when it does, we’ll have almost scarily front row seats for the show.  The composite image above isn’t “necessary” for the investigations of its properties.  But it does provide a synoptic view of what’s going on right now, and it sure is pretty.

Which is what we know on earth, and, if not all we need to know, than at least a fine goad to get after the rest.


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