The picture you see below is a composite image of the Eagle Nebula titled The Pillars of Creation. It was created in 1995 from photographs taken by the Hubble space telescope, and became instantly famous upon its release.
Whether you’ve seen the image before or not, I still remember my initial reaction because I laughed out loud. To see why, take a moment and ask yourself how that image was edited in order to make it so awe inspiring. When you’ve made your best guess — or, if you’re the inattentive type, when you’ve finished reading this sentence — click the link to read on.
The problem with The Pillars of Creation is that there is no up or down in space, meaning the orientation of the image — to say nothing of the consequent naming of the image — was an editorial choice. Here’s the same image with the plumes oriented down instead of up:
Would you still call that The Pillars of Creation? How about The Exxon Valdez in Space? Or maybe, Three Pails of Sewage in a Green Lake?
If you’re in the business of selling space exploration you’re obviously going to go with the plumes rising instead of sinking, so I get the decision. But what bothered me the minute I first saw that image, and what continues to bother me today, is that most people had no awareness they were being played.
My first reaction was to turn the picture upside down, which is why I started laughing. Later, when I reoriented the picture for people who had previously been impressed the reaction I got was equally hilarious, often involving a pinched look as if the person had just smelled something gross.
There’s no real harm here, of course. People turn their ‘good side’ to the camera all the time, and if a little photo editing helped keep Hubble in orbit I’m fine with that. But it’s always worth remembering that our openness to stories and our willingness to suspend disbelief leaves us vulnerable to exploitation by others. Hopefully the people making editorial choices only use those powers for good, but you can’t count on it.
For the sake of completion here is the same image oriented to the left —
— and to the right:
I’m not sure what title would have been given to either of those orientations, but I’m confident it wouldn’t have been The Pillars of Creation.
— Mark Barrett