This is the Orion Nebula as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope, a composite taken by the Advanced Camera for Surveys on board the satellite iself and augmented by pictures from ground-based telescopes.
Any words that describe it seem to leak inadequacy: wonderful might do, or awesome in its proper sense, powerful for sure, also ensorcelling. It is a window onto the processes by which stars are formated out of molecular clouds. Our Sun and Solar System started like this. So did we - the carbon and other elements that make up what we are all come from stellar nurseries just like this.
As some of you know, I have been contracted by Springer to write a book. Twenty-Five Astronomical Observations That Changed the World - And How You Can Make Them for Yourself is the book’s somewhat less than catchy working title. I will come up with something better, I promise. At the moment I am going through each one of them identifying what I do not, and need, to know. It is a sobering process.
I am also collecting images. All of the main observatories, NASA and Hubble, publish pictures of their observations, and most can be downloaded and used. It is incredible how easy it is to observe anything and everything on screen.
And of course these images are quite unlike those actually seen through an amateur telescope. I have seen the Orion Nebula a few times after quite a lot of searching and it is almost unrecognisably different from the picture here. Sir John Herschel, son of William Hershel, described it as 'a curdling liquid or a surface strewn over with flocks of wool,' and that is right. It has a milky quality comparable to our own galaxy, which the Latins called Via Lactea and we follow , the Milky Way. But there are no colours such as those in the Hubble picture. The filaments of cloud and other detailed features can’t be seen.
And so why look? That was the question I put to myself this morning. Why not read about the object and then google for the best picture?
Because these are two different types of seeing, the direct and the mediated. They might be compared to the glimpse and to the stare. Computer pictures like this one (this is Orion, again a Hubble composite) are amazing and a wonderful scientific tool. They can enable us to explore and understand in ways unimagined, I am sure, by Henry Draper when in 1882 he took the first trembling picture of the Orion Nebula.
But they do not create a bond between the seer and the seen.
A bond? I am grasping at something like Thomas Aquinas’ theory of vision. He posited that between the eye of the beholder and the object lay a line of species in medio, forming a connection, as it were. Ockham disputed this model of cognition – most later Thomists followed Suarez in ignoring their complexities –but the medieval notion of species was always pretty slippery, and I’m not certain that Aquinas was talking about physical species as much as a kind of moral bond. Sight had to establish a communion, otherwise, for him, there could be no memory.
Abstruse? For sure. But making a point that matters? I think so. Seeing for oneself and seeing on a screen might be compared to the difference between seeing and touching explored by Gabriel Josipovici in Touch:
‘Please do not touch.’ That is the one label every visitor to the museum or gallery has to read. …The very abundance and proximity of masterpieces and objects of huge cultural significance tend to deprive each of their aura. We can, if the attendant is not looking, actually touch them – but can they touch us?
Walter Benjamin makes the same point in his Work of Art:
The sight of immediate reality has become an orchid in the land of technology.
And, like an orchid – this one is from Strathrusdale – direct sight now feels precious. It has become a way of experiencing an object closely and slowly. It takes some effort to find the nebula through a telescope, so there is much less temptation to drift away. Nothing is ever more than a click away from ending, a character says in one of my short stories. Real sight is somehow less rapacious.
It also leaves a trace that cannot be erased using the browser’s command, Delete History.
Every insecure child makes the mistake of turning touch into grasp, of trying to grip and possess what should only be lightly touched.
This is Josipovici again, a point I also bring to the distinction between seeing on screen and seeing through the lenses of a telescope. Computer images can be downloaded, reproduced, also manipulated. They become a possession and so can be exchanged or improved. Whereas the milky vision of Orion’s nebula – perched 1500 light years away in the constellation’s sword, the trembling trapezium of young stars that I can just make out when there is no cloud and I have remembered to clean my glasses – all of that is absolutely beyond my touch. It is where I come from. I can’t get there. But I can see.