The heavens declare

The James Webb pictures have started to be released.

If you know anything about William Blake you will know of his impressive imagination. When you see something like Gerrard Hoffnung’s the Symphony Orchestra you might wonder whether it was inspired by Blake’s last judgement, turned on its head of course. What is the point of this? Well it was Martin’s The Great Day of His Wrath that set me off. It is but a short ride in a fast machine, if you can bear with it.

Did you see the James Webb Telescope’s pictures that were released a week ago? Perhaps more to the point did you watch through the live broadcast covering the release on the NASA/ESA channel? I shall refrain from any comments on that lest impunity be found in them. The pictures are as they say ‘out of this world’, but unlike Blake’s visions not of things out of this universe. I do wonder how we can say that anything is ‘out of this world’ if it clearly is in this world, but that is a different blog. What was interesting was the process by which the images are made presentable to us with the limitations of our eyes, as the new telescope does not operate in the wavelengths that are visible to us. Whilst the use of the infrared produces a great deal of information for those who can interpret it – things like spectra which reveal the presence of elements in the star light and, by inference, in the stars which produce the light – the process is not unlike that of an artist colouring in his painting. He can see what he wants to paint, and has probably already drawn the cartoons underneath – think of paint by numbers – and now he is applying the oils.

Every brush stroke matters. The precise colour will convey what he wants to convey. This is a process through which the images from the Webb must go. The people at NASA and ESA must decide how to present the images in a way that we can see them. They even have to go down to the level of each pixel – is it the right colour? Perhaps it is a faulty pixel and must be washed out. That reminds me of the little red buoy of which Constable complained: ‘He [Turner] has been here and fired a gun’ (a somewhat different understanding of the incident is set out here).  When human art is imposed on a picture the nature and meaning of the picture can change.

Looking recently at the requirements for identity photographs there is a requirement that the image should not have been altered electronically in any way. The workings of modern cameras probably mean that not anything they produce is suitable, but we know what they mean. We all know of the dangers of image manipulation. Turner did it. Constable took fifteen years doing it over his painting (also here) prior to the time that it stood next to the little red buoy. NASA and ESA must do it.

This process does not detract of course from the splendid images that they have produced. Take a look at the Cosmic Cliffs:

Whatever the reality is behind the photograph, the beauty of the universe in which we float in this significantly special sweet spot within the Milky Way it is more than our minds can comprehend. Men have striven long to understand the universe, and the longer we look, the more we see. The more we see, the better we understand how little we understand.

The Psalmist was right to declare: The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows his handiwork. Day unto day utters speech, and night unto night reveals knowledge. There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard. Their voice has gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them he has set a tent for the sun, which is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoices like a strong man to run its race. Its rising is from one end of heaven, and its circuit to the other end; and there is nothing hidden from its heat.

Let us then, as we look at the sky at night, in the day, or these pictures so beautifully produced for us remember that they declare the glory of the God who created them, and worship him.