Aesthetics and Astronomy: Studying the public's perception and understanding of non-traditional imagery from space
Some 400 years after Galileo, modern telescopes have enabled humanity to "see" what the natural eye cannot. Astronomical images today contain information about incredibly large objects located across vast distances and reveal information found in "invisible" radiation ranging from radio waves to X-rays. The current generation of telescopes has created an explosion of images available for the public to explore. This has, importantly, coincided with the maturation of the Internet. Every major telescope has a web site, often with an extensive gallery of images. New and free downloadable tools exist for members of the public to explore astronomical data and even create their own images. In short, a new era of an accessible universe has been entered, in which the public can participate and explore like never before. But there is a severe lack of scholarly and robust studies to probe how people - especially non-experts - perceive these images and the information they attempt to convey. Most astronomical images for the public have been processed (e.g., color choices, artifact removal, smoothing, cropping/field-of-view shown) to strike a balance between the science being highlighted and the aesthetics designed to engage the public. However, the extent to which these choices affect perception and comprehension is, at best, poorly understood. The goal of the studies presented here was to begin a program of research to better understand how people perceive astronomical images, and how such images, and the explanatory material that accompanies them, can best be presented to the public in terms of understanding, appreciation, and enjoyment of the images and the science that underlies them.