The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
As my colleague Effie mentioned back in April, the Smithsonian has been working hard to provide the public with a way to search across the Smithsonian’s diverse digital collections. New photographs are being added to this search engine, the Smithsonian Institution Collections Search Center, all the time.
Most recently, some of the National Air and Space Museum’s collections were added, and you can now search and browse through over 300 of their photographs here.
The photos, as shown in a slideshow sampling below, reflect the broad interests of NASM. I found some gems when I searched through, including photos of kids horsing around on a crop dusting helicopter (note the “Danger” and “Keep Away” warnings); an early rocket bomb; a happy family living it up in first class seats with an enviable amount of leg room; and two stunt flyers who set a women's refueling endurance record all while advertising Outdoor Girl cosmetics!
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An eclipse of the sun occurs when the moon passes between the sun and the earth so that the sun’s light is fully or partially blocked. A total solar eclipse is rare and spectacular and not a little scary. The sun seems to disappear in the middle of the day and the sky darkens in a matter of minutes. The birds stop singing. People gather to watch through small pieces of smoky glass. They mutter to each other not to look directly at the sun, not to go blind. In the spring of 1900, the Smithsonian’s Astrophysical Observatory, then based in Washington, D.C., loaded several railroad cars with scientific equipment and headed to Wadesboro, North Carolina. Scientists had determined that this small Appalachian town would be the best location in North America for viewing an expected total solar eclipse on the 28th of May. In addition to the Smithsonian, teams from all over the world set up elaborate, massive telescopes. In the 1890s two other eclipse expeditions had preceded this one. And in both cases scientists had been thwarted in their attempts to witness the sight. In Lapland in 1896 scientists who had waited for weeks for the August 9th eclipse instead encountered a cloudy day; the expeditions to India in January 1898 were threatened by plague. In the words of the British Astronomical Association journal, "The course of Total Eclipse Expeditions, like that of true love, never runs smooth." Besides telescopes, each expedition brought with them an enormous amount of camera equipment. The Smithsonian Solar Eclipse Expedition hoped in particular to capture photographic proof of the solar corona. The Smithsonian’s photographer, Thomas Smillie, rigged cameras to seven telescopes and successfully made eight glass-plate negatives, ranging in size from eleven by fourteen inches to thirty by thirty inches. At the time, Smillie’s work was considered an amazing photographic and scientific achievement. Nearly a hundred years later, another Smithsonian photographer, Carl Hansen, joined an expedition to photograph a total eclipse in Panama. To nineteenth-century scientists, seeing was the most reliable of the senses, and photography, as a servant of sight, seemed capable of equal reliability. As Steve Turner, Smithsonian curator of physical sciences writes in his click! photography changes everything entry, the subject of many early scientific studies was the spectrum of light itself, the medium that made photography possible. The urge to measure the earth and sky with photographs is evident throughout early pictures. Dominque Francois Arago, the scientist who presented Louis Daguerre’s photographic invention to the French Chamber of Deputies in July of 1839, imagined that photography's greatest contribution might be as an aid to astronomers in their endeavors to map the heavens. These kinds of evidentiary pictures measure not only space, but also time. It is hard to wrap your mind around a photograph of a heavenly body made of light that has traveled for years to register in the earthly moment of the camera. More recently, studying images sent from x-ray telescopes mounted on satellites orbiting the sun, scientists have found that the dim areas at the edges of the corona’s active regions may hold the key to understanding how the sun converts vast amounts of energy from its surface into the solar wind. Understanding the origin of solar wind will improve our forecast of space weather and help astrophysicists understand the nature of stellar wind blowing from the surfaces of many other stars. Like the earliest photographic images, they also produce images of astonishing beauty.
Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.
The planets and outer space used to seem far, far away from our lives down on earth. But as this slideshow reveals, by the mid-twentieth century—with Ford Galaxies in our driveways, satellite-shaped barbeque grills in our backyards, and as we watched astronauts walk on the moon on TV—our perspectives began to shift. In the late 1960s and early 70s, as Steward Brand, editor of the Whole Earth Catalog reminds us, “riveting Earth photos reframed everything. For the first time humanity saw itself from outside.” Today, we’re all citizens of the universe, as non-stop streams of images—spectacular ones made with cameras pointing up and down from satellites, observatories, and planetary rovers, as well as more casual images like these, curated from Flickr members—remind us.
Looney Toons, by Antonia Gomez
Galaxie 500, by Andy van der Raadt
My Favorite Martian, by TedsBlog
me too, by Malingering
Kylee's star tattoo, by Lisa D
The Rich are Wrecking the Planet, by Tavis Ford
Alium, by Paul Macrae
E550 with telescope finder, by R1CARD0
we can destroy the planet later, by Erin MC Hammer
So steampunk, by Erin Pettigrew
Trip to Planet Sandwich, by Matt Barber
Telescope control room, Bruno Dr. Sanchez-Andrade Nuno
Roddenberry's Star, by Sean Duncan
eclipse images 2009, Bruno Dr. Sanchez-Andrade Nuno
planet lineup, by Liz
Why? Because as more states follow the lead of Arkansas, Indiana, Nevada, and Virginia, anything other than a neutral expression throws off new facial recognition software that compares new photo ID pictures with previously existing ones. The technology, designed to increase security and reduce fraud, "works best when the images are similar," said a Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles spokeswoman, Pam Goheen, quoted in a recent Washington Post report. So if you find yourself online at the DMV when the old song "Put on a Happy Face" pops up in your head, don’t.
Throughout May and June, we are inviting people throughout the Smithsonian to talk about photography and astronomy. This is the second installment from Megan Watzke, Press Officer at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. Visit the Smithsonian Flickr Commons photostream to see new photos from the Chandra X-ray Observatory.
In the first part of our series on "Seeing the Invisible," we introduced the concept of "other" types of astronomy. That is, we talked about astronomy that looks at radiation other than that you can detect with the human eye such as radio, infrared, and X-ray telescopes. Now, let’s take a closer look at just how X-ray images are made using the Chandra X-ray Observatory which is operated and managed for NASA by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (more images and animations here). The first thing to realize is that mirrors in X-ray telescopes are far different than the ones we are familiar with in our bathrooms or hallways. Because X-rays are far more energetic than the light we can see with our eyes, they are simply absorbed by a "regular" mirror. So in order to focus X-rays onto a detector, they need to be angled or deflected. Therefore, the mirrors inside Chandra (see more images) are barrel-shaped and the X-rays that strike them are redirected, like pebbles skipping across a pond, into the detector at the end of the telescope. The data that Chandra’s detectors collect are then stored onboard the spacecraft until it’s time for the telescope to make a really, really long distance phone call. Just as data can be transmitted via cell phones and the wireless Internet here on Earth, so too can it be shared from a spacecraft and the ground. In order to do this, NASA has created the so-called Deep Space Network (DSN). This is a series of three, very large radio antennae that are located in California’s Mojave Desert, near Madrid, Spain, and outside of Canberra, Australia. By having these three dishes scattered around the world, this ensures that one will be pointing in the direction of a telescope at any time. There are many telescopes and spacecraft that need to share the minutes on this particular super network—ranging from Cassini in orbit around Saturn to the rovers still hard at work on Mars. Typically, Chandra uses the DSN about three times a day. During this time, the spacecraft sends down the data it has collected in the roughly 8 hours since the last time it communicated with the ground, plus other technical and engineering information. In the other direction, controllers on the ground send new targets for the spacecraft to observe. (Sometimes there are other maneuvers or tasks that need to be done, such as during meteor showers, etc., but this is relatively rare.) Once the data is on the ground, it is sent by fiber optic cable to the Chandra’s Control Center in Cambridge, Mass. Once safely in hand, some standard processing is done to it. Within a matter of hours, however, the data are then sent off to the scientist who proposed to study that particular target. The data doesn’t arrive in the form of polished images, however. Instead, it appears as a series of positions and times. These tables can then be turned into images by plotting their positions on a grid. Each additional photon detected at a location makes that point appear as a brighter X-ray source. This is done for the thousands of pixels that make up the camcorder-like instruments onboard Chandra. So you can think of Chandra’s images as sort of Seurat-like X-ray pictures of space. However, Chandra’s images are not in any way imagined. The data are translated, processed and presented in such a way that make them understandable to the human eye, but they are as real as any image can be. It may be a bit complicated, but telescopes like Chandra and the ingenious men and women behind it are letting all of us, rather remarkably, see the invisible.
Megan Watzke of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.
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