Baby Picture of the Universe
The announcement of the results from the European Space Agency’s Planck
satellite has generated renewed interest in the idea of a single image of
the entire universe, in particular a snapshot of its state shortly after its
have just completed a digital art project using the raw data from the Planck
mission. I created a new, high-resolution all-sky image, using the 9
channels of microwave data: (click on the image below for a high-resolution
I then created another "interpretation" of the data using a
different color mapping for the data, to suggest a baby picture via color:
Is one of these images more "natural" than the other?
More intuitive? More useful? More beautiful?
This project was inspired by an earlier painting project dealing with the
same subject matter.
A decade ago, I made a painting of data from the WMAP satellite, Planck’s
predecessor in studying the Cosmic Background Radiation.
Jonathan Feldschuh, Universe Baby Picture, acrylic on canvas over
oval panel, 36" x 72", 2002
This painting was part of the
where I used data generated from various orbiting observatories. The oval
format comes from the elegant Mollweide Projection, which maps a sphere onto
an ellipse, preserving area (although somewhat distorting shape, especially
at the edges.) This is the mapping used to produce the familiar
showing all the continents at once.
In this case of the satellites, the sphere being mapped is the celestial
sphere - what you would see if you could look out in all directions at once,
without the earth getting in your way. Even a satellite has a little
problem in seeing out to deep space in all directions, namely the fact that
it is embedded in the Milky Way. The challenge is akin to trying to take a
photograph of every surface of the inside of a subway car, while standing in
the middle of it during rush hour.
The data from this mission was very painstakingly gathered and analyzed,
and all the radiation from all known local sources was removed, to end up
with this latest and greatest image, which was seen around the world (and
featured on the front page of The New York Times, above the fold):
anisotropies (i.e. the variations in warm/cool color in the image that
indicate minute variations in the background radiation) are seen in ever
greater detail, but no obvious structure (except perhaps for a tantalizing
similarity to the image of the continents above…).
When I first saw the images from the earlier WMAP project, I was struck by
their visual beauty, and their conceptual clarity. The notion of depicting
the entire universe at once was striking. I found myself drawn to the
intermediate images in the process, where the Milky Way was still visible.
This became a strong motif of the painting that resulted, a counterbalance
to the very strong form of the oval panel.
As an artist making paintings from data, I felt free to remap the data to
new colors to suit my pictorial purposes. Scientists often ignore the
visual implications of the colors they choose, choosing them as though the
only meaning that color carries is that of visual differentiation (in other
words, that the viewer can distinguish one color from another, and hence
“see the data” as clearly as possible). An artist sees color differently –
color is embedded in a pictorial language that has vast and rich
associations throughout all of visual culture. Color can be associated with
emotions, ideas, ideologies, styles, eras, places, etc.. Meaning and
association cannot be separated from color. Every choice of a palette, no
matter how seemingly neutral, has an effect.
In the case of Universe Baby Picture, I came up with a color
spectrum that related to the idea of the infant universe: pink and blue to
suggest the colors of the blankets that newborns are swaddled with in
hospitals. I preferred the image with the Milky Way left in as a “creamy
center” (in Martin Kemp’s phrase), like some amazing Fabergé egg about to
Other paintings from this series used the data to different pictorial ends.
Feldschuh, Cosmic Microwave Background, acrylic on canvas over panel,
24" x 48", 2001
Fabergé egg idea is pushed to an extreme. I replaced the original color
In the painting Island Universe, I substituted a deep sea-shallow
sea-beach-forest-mountain spectrum (such as a mapmaker might use to show
elevation) for the original NASA thermal spectrum to create an image that
suggests the entire universe as a coral atoll in the Pacific.
Feldschuh, Island Universe (DIRBE 100 micron data), acrylic on canvas
over panel, 48" x 96", 2002
that is hard to convey in small images on the web is how the surface of
these paintings is made of swirling paint and drawn lines. Paintings are
also physical objects, and the tension between their status as disembodied
images and as objects is particularly interesting when the subject of the
painting is data. Painting is an analog medium, so when we push past the
digital resolution of the original data, we reenter a realm of fluctuation.
As paint mixes together, it forms complicated boundaries. I enhance these
borders with drawn pencil lines (using a procsess of layered and poured
acrylic on top of the paint, which allows me to create a flat surface
suitable for drawing). The outlining depicts (imagined) three-dimensional
structures that interrupt the two-dimensional conception of the original
data. Consider this tiny detail from the center of
Universe Baby Picture,
the paint has swirled into complex forms well below the scale of the pencil
lines I have added to define the primary forms.
Universe Baby Picture, showing ~ 10cmx10cm of the central area of the
painting (<1% of painting)
Just like its
subject matter (i.e. the universe itself) the painting reveals structures
inside structures, as close as we care to examine them. Painting and
drawing have always been used to explore our place in the universe.
Leonardo would not have recognized a great distinction between the drawings
he made of his inventions, of his studies of anatomy and natural phenomena,
of his plans for fortifications and spectaculars, or of his preparations for
his painting projects. They were all part of disegno, the process of
both designing and apprehending the world. As mankind’s collective
knowledge grows ever vaster, the age of a “Renaissance Man” or polymath who
operates in the “Two Cultures” of art and science seems past. But perhaps
there is something to be gained in remembering that art and science are
inextricable strands of a single thread of human inquiry.