Reality Straight Up!

Thoughts & Observations of a Free Range Astrophysicist

The Man Behind the Pillars

Astronomy Magazine asked me to write a piece about what the iconic Hubble Space Telescope image of the Eagle Nebula has meant to me personally. The short answer: It’s been a wild ride!


When David Eicher asked me to write a short piece about what the Hubble WFPC2 image of the Eagle Nebula has meant to me personally, I chuckled. Not everyone winds up seeing his work on a US Postage stamp or in Time Magazine’s collection of the 100 most influential photographs in history. It’s cool to see the pillars on the big screen in a scifi blockbuster or hanging on the window of Sheldon and Leonard’s apartment on The Big Bang Theory. It’s fun to hear the phone ring and have a friend say, “Hey, I just saw you on TV again!” It’s been quite a ride, made especially rewarding because I was part of the team that built the camera.

Astronomy-April-2015-coverThe Eagle Nebula image symbolized an end to what had been a very difficult period for NASA. That is what it was designed to do. The press conference was scheduled to coincide with a feature article in Time Magazine heralding Hubble’s phoenix-like rise from early disaster. How better to illustrate that story than with a stunning image unlike anything the public had ever seen? But no one imagined a reaction that would turn the image into a cultural icon.

For as long as there have been humans we have looked at the sky in awe and wondered about our connection with the heavens. Now for the first time in history we can tell that story, beginning with the Big Bang and ending with us sitting here talking about it. Knowledge of our place in the Universe is no longer a matter of speculation or mythology. It is hard science. For many, The Pillars of Creation became the recognized face of that human triumph.

I have spent countless hours discussing the image not only with fellow scientists, but with artists, musicians, writers and in fact people from all backgrounds. They would speak of beauty and passion and inspiration. The more I listened the more familiar their reactions sounded to my own. We were all expressing our experience of the human drive to find patterns and meaning in the midst of the complexity of the world.

David asked me, “What has the image meant to you, personally?” There is no doubt that it reshaped my career as a scientist. But more than that it changed not only the way I think about science and art, but also my understanding of what it is to be human.

The Man Behind the Pillars  © Dr. Jeff Hester
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Reality Straight Up!

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Click on thumbnail to select post:

  • Great Deceiverism 101  Explanation or Theory? Therein lies the rub.Posted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • One Step at a Time  The  not-so-mysterious origin of lifePosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • The Mind’s Siren Call  Being certain is a primrose pathPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Constrained Hallucinations  How the brain uses science to perceive the worldPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Entropy Redux  Why our universe isn’t boringPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Entropy’s Rainbow  The statistically likely path to complexityPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Cassandra Smiling  Science, politics and a march in the rainPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • EPA Rehash  A suddenly partisan NASA faces its futurePosted in Thoughts
  • The Hermeneutics of  Bunk  Alan Sokal and postmodernism’s black eyePosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • A Dunning-Kruger Universe  Everyone, it seems, has a “theory”Posted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Our Need to Know  We crave certainty, even when it is only an illusionPosted in CoachingThoughtsUnreasonable Faith
  • A Saguaro’s universe  Building a cactus starts with the Big BangPosted in For Your Consideration
  • If someone can’t tell you how they would know that they are wrong, they don’t have a clue whether they are right.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • Once seemingly incomprehensible, the origin of life no longer seems such a mystery. Most of what once appeared as roadblocks are turning out to be superhighways.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • Being certain lights up our brains like a junkie’s next hit. Literally. Unfortunately, being certain and being right are two very, very different things.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • The unique worlds we each consciously inhabit – the only worlds we will ever experience – are constrained hallucinations, products of hypothesis testing by our predictive brains.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • A month’s worth of sunlight could pay the entropy bill for a billion years of biological evolution. Entropy is evolution’s best friend.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • Entropy is often maligned as the enemy of order. In truth, without the inexorable march of entropy, the universe would be a very boring place.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • On a cold day in April, 2017 scientists gathered in Washington DC and cities around the world for the March for Science. Their message was a single powerful idea. Truth is not a political expediency. Reality cannot be ignored. In the year that has followed the vital importance of that message has only grown.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • When I look at NASA’s new Administrator, Jim Bridenstine, it is his fellow Oklahoman Scott Pruitt’s EPA that jumps to mind. As politically uncomfortable science is pushed aside, NASA’s history of nonpartisanship appears headed for an abrupt end. Will a strongly partisan NASA have a target on its back?

  • Some years ago, NYU physicist Alan Sokal wondered whether anti-science postmodernists could recognize politically-correct-sounding nonsense even if he rubbed their noses in it. The unwitting subjects of the Sokal Hoax jumped at the bait.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • Some people are sure they know more than the experts, but it can take a lot of knowledge to realize just how wrong an idea is.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • The human brain craves the sensation of knowing like a drug addict craves the next fix. If real knowledge is uncomfortable or not at hand, we are quite content to just make something up, then convince ourselves it’s real. In a world where knowledge matters, that’s dangerous.

  • The iconic saguaro cactus gives the desert an otherwordly beauty. That beauty does not exist in isolation. It embodies the fascinating and awe-inspiring processes that have shaped the universe, going all the way back to the Big Bang itself.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

Over his 30 year career as an internationally known astrophysicist, Dr. Jeff Hester was a key member of the team that repaired the Hubble Space Telescope. With one foot always on the frontiers of knowledge, he has been mentor, coach, team leader, award-winning teacher, administrator and speaker, to name a few of the hats he has worn. His Hubble image, the Pillars of Creation, was chosen by Time Magazine as among the 100 most influential photographs in history.
©Dr. Jeff Hester LLC, 5301 S. Superstition Mountain Dr., Suite 104 #171, Gold Canyon, AZ 85118