Beauty of Data


Last week, Netherlands-based freelance editor and aspiring director Sander van den Berg created a beautiful video merging the image sequences of Jupiter and Saturn from the Voyager and Cassini missions to music from That Home. The images, some older than 30 years, are part of a massive repository of data collected by NASA and freely available to anyone with enough bandwidth and storage space.

In van den Berg’s hands, the raw footage becomes a mesmerizing sequence of vignettes set against the largest planets in our solar system. One cannot help but make an emotional connection in the jostling of clouds around Saturn’s North Pole to the hustle and bustle of our daily grind; the light touch of shepharding moons as they gracefully perturb Saturn’s rings illicits a heartfelt yearning for a lover or a lost friend; and the loneliness of two moons, passing each other in silence in their eternal dance is palpable. And despite the alien grandeur, the roughness of the images reminds us that these scenes are common and ordinary, played out for eons past and in eons future, long after the human drama has been eclipsed.

Scientific data is often viewed as cold, hard facts, devoid of sentiment or subjectivity. Van den Berg shows that data that looks upon our Universe also reflects on our humanity, and rejuvenates our connection to the natural world.

Astronomical Synesthesia

crab-nebula-radio-image

Radio image of the Crab Nebula: an example of astronomical information that can be neither seen nor heard directly

The image to the left is a radio picture of the Crab Nebula, the debris field from a massive supernova explosion that was recorded by astronomers in 1054 AD. These data come from 11 hours of observations made by a large array of metal dishes called, uncreatively, the Very Large Array. In this image, we see the structure of the debris as it streams away from the explosion site at 1000 kilometers per second, energized by radiation and winds coming from the remnant of the long-dead star, a spinning ball of neutrons 10 km wide and more massive than our Sun.

Except, we don’t actually see anything.

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