Friday, April 07, 2006

Science "Abstract"

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day website (which is a must-save bookmark for anyone with even the slightest interest in science and imagery!) contains an incredible digital composite of the sun's corona (taken during the recent March 29 eclipse). The composite was created by Koen van Gorp.

The Sun's "atmosphere" (i.e., its corona, which consists of extremely hot gas with a density less than one billionth that of the earth's atmosphere), scatters light from the Sun in all directions. Since this scattered light is very dim compared to the light emanating directly from the Sun, it is normally difficult, if not impossible, to see the corona. However, the corona becomes visible during a total solar eclipse, when the Sun's disc is covered by the moon and its atmosphere becomes visible as a bright, shimmering ring around the moon. Nonetheless, even during such favorable viewing times, it is difficult to capture - at least, to capture in a single image - the typically 10,000 to 1 range of luminance levels.

To circumvent this diffulty, and as explained at the site, the composite image shown above contains 33 separate digital photographs, that collectively reveal remarkable detail that would otherwise remain invisible. Individual exposure times range from 1/8000 sec to 1/5 sec. The resulting image is, in a word, breathtaking!

This extraordinary image is also a great example of how a purely aesthetic experience may be enhanced (indeed, profoundly intensified!) by appreciating the science on which it rests. To be sure, this image may certainly be appreciated purely on its own terms, without the slightest understanding of what it depicts or how it was created. It is a marvelous "abstract" that any abstract expressionist artist would be proud to call his or her own. But to learn that the image is emphatically not the isolated product of a creative artist (drawing on inner inspiration) - rather, that it is a creative collaboration between artist and nature, in which the artist draws upon science (by using scientific tools to visualize otherwise unseen processes and enhance his/her understanding of natural phenomena) - for me, only transforms an already impressive image into something truly special!

Perhaps the only important difference between those who choose such fields as physics and mathematics as lifelong pursuits, and those who do not, is that those who do are able to see the same kind of resplendent, radiant beauty displayed by this image in the very equations that describe the physics that underlie it. Thankfully though, for those for whom "equations" were more of an anathema in school than a stepping stone toward enlightenment;-), such a deep level of understanding is not needed to appreciate nature's gentle grace, elegance and beauty!


A.V. Michaels said...

Cool pic! Reminds me of Mandelbrots fractals, that things in nature can have mathematical descriptions...

David said...

Yes, pictures with meaning beyond the empty "it just exists" are better to appreciate. I'm glad to see your comment.