Universe of Technical Images (The 1.28 GHz MeerKAT Galactic Center Mosaic)

I was almost going to post the very polished photographic images that appeared here at the NYT about The 1.28 GHz MeerKAT Galactic Center Mosaic. They are definitely worth a look. But I couldn’t post them in good faith. The images are too polished, too conventionally sublime, too readily given to awe and to kitsch. They are too easy to look at. They make a strong impression, and that’s it. That is why they feel like bad religion. The highly touched up conventional images are maybe even anthropomorphic insofar as they conform to how we human beings might like to imagine the sublimity of our own sensible powers. Instead, I decided to post the more technical images from the full scientific report, which you can read here. Combining images and information makes them more “interesting.” By interest, I mean how the technical images sustain a more close kind of looking over time.

As reported here at the NYT: “The [images], taken by the MeerKAT radio telescope, an array of 64 antennas spread across five miles of desert in northern South Africa, reveals a storm of activity in the central region of the Milky Way, with threads of radio emission laced and kinked through space among bubbles of energy. At the very center Sagittarius A*, a well-studied supermassive black hole, emits its own exuberant buzz….We are accustomed to seeing galaxies, from afar, as soft, glowing eggs of light or as majestic, bejeweled whirlpools. Rarely do we glimpse the roiling beneath the clouds — all the forms of frenzy that a hundred million or so stars can get up to….To visible-light telescopes, large sections of the Milky Way sky are rendered black by intervening clouds of cosmic dust. But radio waves pass right through, enabling MeerKAT to get up-close and personal.Twenty separate observations, generating 70 terabytes of data and requiring three years of processing, were needed to produce the image. The result is a panorama 1,000 light-years wide and 600 light-years high of the central regions of the Milky Way. (The entire galaxy is 100,000 light years in diameter, and its center is 25,000 light-years from Earth.)

The report, linked above, pays less attention to the astral phenomenon itself and more attention to technical details relating to the creation of radio images, details that are way beyond my ken. But I like the opening paragraph to the report. “Jansky’s discovery that some of his instrumental noise was moving according to sidereal time marked the birth of radio astronomy as a science (Jansky 1993). The peak of the extrasolar radio emission was in the constellation of Sagittarius, from the direction of the Galactic center (GC), a finding later confirmed and refined by Reber’s multifrequency mapping of the radio sky with a parabolic antenna (Reber 1944). In addition to its historic place in the field of radio astronomy, the GC is a region of immense astrophysical interest, and has been studied extensively by many observatories covering all accessible wavelengths.”

This is not a pipe, and these aren’t astral phenomena. Confusing is how we are given to see things not given to see by way of ordinary optical impressions. The radio image scrubs sense data, the visual noise and dust, that obscure the sense datum at hand. Also, the radio image takes more time to congeal. But then, what is it that we’re seeing? That’s an old epistemological question. It’s the image we see, not the thing itself. The technological apparatus underscores that old line of philosophical thought. At the same time, the art of combining images and information makes the technical image more “real.” In contrast to the dynamism of the technical images, the non-technical images posted at the NYT look more like paintings. I’m guessing that the painterly effect has to do with the color saturation.

[The title of the blogpost is in homage to Vilém Flusser.]

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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