What are the most challenging questions to answer? From my experience as a science loving priest, I would have to say the easy questions pose the greatest difficulty. When someone asks me, “Father, why did you become a priest?” I often struggle to find an answer that gives the full breadth of meaning the question demands. To simply reduce my answer to feelings from childhood, affirmation from family and friends, or the life experiences that affirmed this feeling, though helpful, doesn’t provide the full spectrum of what I seek to communicate. Put another way, how does one take a 45 year journey and condense it to a 150 character tweet!
I experience a similar struggle when someone asks, “Father, why do you love astronomy?” I could talk about my love of the night skies over the family farm, how my college astronomy studies grabbed me, and my first glimpse of Jupiter’s Moons through a telescope. Each answer, however, never leaves me feeling like I fully answered the question. There is an illusive “something” I experience internally when gazing at the heavens I can’t quite put into words. At the risk of sounding overly romantic, it reminds me of the stymied moment I observe in a newly engaged couple’s eyes when I ask them, “So when did the two of you know?”
This past week I was blessed with a few days of vacation. Most of it was spent, as often is the case, on the family farm. Yet, this trip home had a different air of excitement. As I have shared with you in in the past, I participated in a “fund-me” project to help development an astronomy camera for the masses called the Nano1 from TinyMOS. Next week, I will do a more formal review of the camera. This week, however, I wanted to share the joy and insight I gained by using both this and my Canon EOS-M in ways that made me feel one step closer to provide a better answer to the question, “Why do I love astronomy?”
Being blessed with clear skies and favorable humidity levels every night but one, I began the process of understanding night photography. This learning was not only about ISO settings and exposure lengths, but it was about attentiveness to creation and attentiveness to how creation moves me. It reminded me of the shift in art during the impressionistic era to the internal, seeking to create art that didn’t necessarily communicate the precise outward attributes of the subject, but the feelings that subject evoked or experienced themselves. This reflection made me think of the two approaches I encounter when discussing star photography: Is the goal to provide a true image of the night sky or is it to create beautiful pictures that grab people through digital enhancements and color painting?
The first insight to the tension between true images of the night sky and artistic renderings of night photography happened while at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wisconsin. After a night of shooting with my good friend Jamie Cooper, I opened the images on my computer and had a thought that now occurs every time I take pictures of the night sky, “That’s amazing! But that’s not how it looked when I took the picture.” Lesson One: Even “true color images” of the night sky need some digital alternation to move the picture from what ended up on the sensor to what you remember seeing.
This practice of altering a picture to reflect its “true” appearance helped me realize that any image of the night sky possesses an odd commingling of the objective and subjective. One of my favorite examples of this tension between an objective and subjective interpretation of space is the wildly colorful false image of Pluto done by NASA. At first glance, one may conclude that one of the New Horizons scientists took this image home, left it on the kitchen counter, and their children took their box of crayons and vibrant markers to Pluto. Instead, this was an intentionally false colored image to highlight the different regions of Pluto’s surface to better understand the unique attributes of this popular Dwarf Planet. Lesson Two: Even a false image can lead to a better understanding of the objective truth of the subject being studied.
This insight of alteration to help express different aspects of truth helped me embrace both approaches to astrophotography: The “realistic” and the “impressionistic.” While trying to take a clear image of the southern horizon of the farm, I took images that reflected both interpretations – What my eyes saw and what my heart felt.
When looking at both images, there is a clear consistency of the subject being taken – The Milky Way. However, the adjustments are not meant to paint a “false image” in a way that is a kind of lie or deception. Rather, the alterations were meant to simply communicate two clear truths: What I saw and what I felt. The difficulty for those who do not understand astrophotography or do not read Sacred Space Astronomy is that this distinction is seldom made when media presents images of the night sky. This lack of an interpretive frame can lead to a false image of creation, mistaking someone’s personal artistic interpretation or emotional response to the sky for the plain view of the heavens. This, of course, presumes that a plain view of the night sky is possible.
Reflection: What are the simple questions that are most difficult for you to answer? Are they about faith? Are they about science? Are they a little bit of each? What are creative ways you’ve found to try to express a true answer to these questions, even if it might mean an over statement of some things to draw attention to the truth of another?
Do these images give me the ability to fully express how I feel when I look at the night sky? Nope. However, they do provide a visual strand to the tapestry of truth that wasn’t present before that helps me feel more at peace trying to share with you and others why astronomy moves me so. Below are other images from my vacation. I’ve labeled the pictures (Nano1) and (Canon EOS-M) so you know which images were taken with which camera.