Processing Color in Astronomical Imagery: Pixels, Power and the Public

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What are the ethical issues involved in the processing –specifically colorizing- of astronomical data, how do non-experts perceive this imagery, and does the public understand the choices made in the representation of the data?

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  • It is plausible to say that a new era of an accessible Universe has been entered, in which people can participate and explore like never before. But there is a lack both of robust studies to understand how people – particularly non-experts – perceive these images and the information they attempt to convey, and also of a formalized code of standards for the field of astronomical image processing. Most astronomical images for the public have been processed through color mapping, artifact removal, smoothing, and/or cropping by a scientist or astronomical imaging expert, to strike a balance between the science being highlighted and the aesthetics designed to engage the public. The extent, however, to which these choices affect the non-expert’s perception, comprehension, and also trust, is not well understood. Studies are now being conducted, for example through the Aesthetics and Astronomy research project at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, on how astronomical images are perceived, but much more needs to be uncovered. http://astroart.cfa.harvard.edu/
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