Blind Willie Johnson: Revival
The Train to Adler Planetarium

Star Pix Wow Space Fans

Hubble Deep Field

The Hubble Deep Field project uses the Hubble Space Telescope to take a kind of "core sample" of the Universe's development. It always comes to mind when I think of the tempestuous relations between science and journalism.

The project requires the Space Telescope to stare into a tiny part of the sky, chosen for its lack of foreground stars, for something like 10 days and nights — that is, it takes a million-second exposure. The result is a photo that looks, at first glance, like an ordinary field of faint stars, but when you lean in to look at the details, you realize the "stars" are all galaxies.

The Hubble Deep Field images provide random samplings of galaxies as they appeared in successively younger eras of the Universe, stretching back to when it was only about 6% of its current age. There are hundreds of ways to tease information out of such photos, and they've been a gold mine for astronomers interested in the evolution of galaxy structure and distribution, dark matter, the big bang, etc., etc., etc.

When the first such image was revealed to reporters in 1996, typical headlines were "NASA Discovers Thousands of Galaxies" or "New Galaxies Discovered, Wowing Astronomers." It's true that most of the galaxies in the images had not been seen before, but what happened was no more the discovery of new galaxies than the discovery of new pebbles would be when geologists take a core sample of interesting geological strata. Astronomy is not about increasing the count of known galaxies, but rather, understanding how the Universe works and evolved, so at least some journalists completely missed the most rudimentary facts of the story.

When you read a newspaper article about something you really understand well, it can make you very suspicious of the article next to it, about which you know almost nothing. On the other hand, I understood what had actually happened — what the news stories should have said — because some journalists actually did get it right. You just had to know where to find them.