Retiring Hubble Visualization Expert Blended the Best of Science and Art
Astronomy has always been a preeminently visual science, going back thousands of years to the early sky watchers. Hubble’s jaw-dropping views of far-flung planets, nebulas, and galaxies have redefined the universe for whole new generations. Nearly all of Hubble’s dazzling images have been prepared with the skills of Zoltan Levay, in the STScI Office of Public Outreach. Levay is retiring now to pursue his hobby of photography on a more earth-bound plane. He leaves behind a 25-year-long legacy of several thousand colorful space pictures that communicate the mystery and wonder of the universe. Levay blended traditional photographic skills with science data to yield aesthetically pleasing pictures that are both enticing and informative. He carefully balanced the objective and subjective elements of imagery to capture the essence of intrinsically wondrous celestial landscapes.
Since its launch in April 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope has inspired and enthralled the world with awe-inspiring, enticing, and colorfully dramatic views of the universe. The power of these images cannot be underestimated. They communicate important astronomical concepts and propel the public’s natural curiosity and passion to try to comprehend a seemingly infinite universe.
Hubble’s visual impact has been so great it has redefined the universe for whole new generations of space enthusiasts. Hubble’s jaw-dropping views have made it the world’s most celebrated telescope, and provided a visual shorthand for Hubble’s achievements. The awesome photos are a carefully balanced blend of art and science.
Nearly all of them have been prepared with the skills of one very special individual, Zoltan Levay, in the STScI Office of Public Outreach. For the past 25 years Levay has held the unique responsibility of working in collaboration with hundreds of Hubble astronomers to visually translate their observations of celestial targets—from planets to stars clusters to nebulas and far-flung galaxies—into aesthetically appealing images for the public.
“Zolt has a tremendous talent for making Hubble images accessible and inspirational to people of all backgrounds. He has enabled millions of people worldwide to revel in the majesty of the universe and feel the powerful emotions that these wondrous images spur in all of us,” said STScI Director Ken Sembach. “We may see these images differently, and they may mean something unique to each of us, but behind it all is Zolt’s desire and ability to elicit these personal connections while conveying the scientific import of the data in a way that everyone can enjoy.”
In meeting this challenge, Levay merged his diverse skills in data processing, photography, and astronomy to build the visual Hubble legacy. Levay’s efforts raised the production values— the technical and aesthetic standards—for astronomical imaging from professional observatories. This was accomplished not simply through intention, but due to the high-quality nature of telescopic imaging from space.
Levay was inspired by the work of the famous nature photographer Ansel Adams. Adams’ award-winning photographs were the product of his special skills at capturing the full beauty of natural wonders. Most of his work took place in the darkroom only after the film negative was exposed. Levay, likewise, used digital darkroom software to translate astronomical data into arresting cosmic landscapes that incorporate all the tools of traditional photography: proper tonal range, wide contrast, and full color fidelity.
In the thousands of images prepared by Levay, he has always treated the Hubble data with a reverence for honesty and accuracy in its content. This blended with traditional photographic skills to yield aesthetically pleasing pictures that are both enticing and informative about the universe. His success was a carefully balanced blend of the objective and subjective to capture the essence of intrinsically dazzling celestial objects.
One of Levay’s favorite images is the mosaic of the Carina nebula, a vast star-forming region. He had to meticulously stitch together multiple frames and combine Hubble and ground-based data to create a seamless tapestry rich in color, shape and texture. An especially challenging image was the Hubble Deep Field, where a lot of information is embedded in a “snowstorm” of extremely faint and distant galaxies.
For all his skill and dedication to communicating the Hubble mission, Levay admits he never imagined the Hubble pictures would have such a broad impact on pop culture. Hubble views are common in sci-fi movies, and the images grace everything from coffee cups to T-shirts to fashion wear.
A large measure of Levay’s success was his ability to work in collaboration with Hubble astronomers. Occasionally his image processing gave astronomers new insights into their research data—so much so that he was invited to be a co-author on the papers, including the paper presenting the legendary Hubble Deep Field.
Levay joined STScI in 1983. Levay’s early years before Hubble’s 1990 launch were spent developing software for astronomers to translate Hubble data into images for analysis. In 1993, he joined STScI’s outreach office to prepare Hubble data for press release images.
Early on, Levay developed a special photo template which gave the Hubble data a unique signature among space news products. On a visit to STScI in late 1994, Carl Sagan complemented the news office for developing a special “look” to the Hubble products, which he felt were very successful. In those years thousands of hardcopy prints of Hubble snapshots were prepared by STScI’s photo lab. Levay worked closely with the technicians on ensuring image quality in this distribution material.
Levay is now retiring from STScI to pursue his photographic skill on earthly targets. He has won several newspaper photo contest awards, exhibited photographs in galleries, and recently was artist-in-residence for the National Park Service. He spent several weeks photographing land and sky vistas at Capitol Reef National Park in Utah.
Retiring with Levay is his wife Karen, who joined STScI in 1997 after many years with the International Ultraviolet Explorer mission at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. As the Archive Science Branch Head, she was fundamental to establishing the infrastructure to transition from the Hubble data archive to a multi-mission astronomy archive called the Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes. These efforts resulted in establishing STScI as a major center for serving archival research by the worldwide astronomy community.