Brain Pickings

Far Out: The Real Space Odyssey

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Hyperkinetic smashups, amateur brilliance, and what Stanley Kubrick has to do with sea sponges.

If you’re like us and have a NASA image of the day fetish, or simply like to gawk at the magnificence of the universe, you’ll love journalist and filmmaker Michael Benson‘s Far Out: A Space-Time Chronicle — easily one of the best books of last year in both science and photography. In this fascinating and viscerally gripping anthology, Benson curates hundreds of remarkable images from observatories around the world and in space, telling the story of time and space in a way that intrigues, illuminates, and inspires.


The book has a mix of images from a number of different observatories.

I tried not to be too reliable on the Hubble, because images from the Hubble tend to be the best-known.

This hyperkinetic gumbo in space, known as the Antenna Galaxies, may resemble the fate of the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy when they collide in about 2.5 billion years.

Benson approached it in a way that gives viewers context and perspective of scale — so he combined wide shots, medium shots and closeups. (The latter being Hubble’s métier, because it’s a narrow-field instrument.) He even curated the images in an order that positions the reader by organizing them in a time-space line, so that images in the front of the book are closer to Earth, between 400 and 700 light years away, and those towards the back are some 12 billion light years away, before Earth even formed.

The Cat's Paw Nebula, named for its shape, attributes its extraordinary color to ionized hydrogen.

But the real gem comes on page 84, a 4-way foldout showing a 360-degree mosaic view of the Milky Way, which was actually put together by an amateur photographer in the Midwest with a normal, non-digital Nikon.

If you have a time exposure that’s long enough and you have a wide-field view, you can get an image that looks like it was taken by a telescope.

The Andromeda Galaxy, the nearest major spiral galaxy to the Milky Way, with diameter of about 220,000 lilight years compared to the Milky Way's 100,000.

The epigraph in the beginning of the book features the famous William Blake quote from the devil’s dictionary — “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.” — alluding to our fundamental fascination with the unknown and our eternal quest to know it.

Where did Benson’s inspiration for Far Out come from? His mother took him to see 2001: A Space Odyssey. Proof for our highly scientific theory that Stanley Kubrick is just a few degrees of separation removed from every great cultural artifact of our day.

Shaped like a sea sponge, the Crab Nebula, in all its 6-light-year-wide glory, remains a hallmark of a supernova that exploded 956 years ago.

You can catch a brief interview with Benson on the January 4 episode of The New York TimesScience Times podcast, and you can take a sneak peek at some of the remarkable images from Far Out in this marvelous slideshow, also from The New York Times.

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