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The Story of the Best Astronomical Picture of the 20th Century

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At the end of 1999, before the end of the twentieth century, social networking sites and international cultural authorities, both official and civil, competed in an open poll on the so-called “Best Thing” of the 20th century: best film, sports club, invention, political activist, etc. NASA's website was one of these entities; it asked people to vote for the best astronomical picture captured in the 20th century.

The poll was specifically on three pictures captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. NASA made several notes for those willing to participate in the poll; in their forefront, the vote has to be purely based on artistic and aesthetic criteria, followed by the subject and the scientific significance of the picture. The three images were of Earth from space, the Rings of Saturn, and the Eagle Nebula.

The first picture showed Earth in its striking blue color with its variance of shapes and terrains on a background of dark black space. The image processing demonstrated the beauty and splendor of the Planet, proving with no doubt the spherical shape of Earth. The second picture showed the Rings of Saturn. It looked unbelievably like a painting by a skillful and experienced artist, who is fully aware of beauty standards, color gradings and their compositions. It proved that Saturn and its rings deserve to be named “The Jewel of the Solar System”. The third picture was of the Eagle Nebula; it was selected as the best astronomical picture of the 20th century.

The Eagle Nebula is a huge cloud that is regarded as raw material for star formation. It is formed of a contrast mixture of ionized and non-ionized gases, as well as dense cosmic dust permeating these gases. This picture in particular was included in the poll because it confirms the idea or the theory of stellar evolution: how stars are born, elevate, grow, and even die. The picture proves all these facts; yet, the picture really calls for contemplation and appreciation of beauty with all its aspects. The picture of the Eagle Nebula has a brilliant chromatic composition. I invite the readers to observe this composition, unleash their imagination, and contemplate NASA's interpretation.

At the top and a little in the center of the picture, you can see the birthplace of a new star behind a pale gelatinous brown spot; a womb-like giving birth to a newborn star. Below it, on both sides, appears two formations of gases. On the left side, the first gas formation seems like a person rejoicing the birth of the star, and on the right side, the gas formation seems like a stunned human face anticipating this charming event. All these meanings are there in an astronomical picture, not painted by human hands, but is one amongst thousands of images successfully captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.

These elegant artistic fantasies and meanings have contributed to the success of this picture to be acknowledged as “The Best Picture of the 20th Century”. Those who participated in the poll did not discuss the reasons for gas variations or their different ionization degree, but rather were attracted by the deep technical explanation and the artistic meanings conveyed in the picture. Neither the bright rings of Saturn nor the bright blue color of Earth interceded for their pictures to compete with the the Eagle Nebula picture. At the end, the cosmic art painting in the picture won the competition; with its deep meanings of holding on hope, continuous giving, and birth, even in the world of stars!


*Published in SCIplanet, Autumn 2018 Issue "Science and Art".

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