The beauty of grainy photographic plates

I’m working on a small bit for a project, involving cross-fades between old-timey photographic plates of spiral galaxies, and their modern high-resolution counterparts.

Although the level of detail in this image of M33 is astounding, there is a certain beauty to the photographic plate (mouse over the image to fade into the black-and-white plate).


I had to resize and rotate both images to make them more or less coincide for a pleasant cross-fade — until I got frustrated at trying to make every pixel match…

The photographic plate holds a certain romantic value. In my early childhood I owned a lot of old astronomy books (and pilfered quite a lot from my relatives). The black-and-white reproductions on those pages had an indefinable fluid, mysterious quality to them.  If I squinted hard enough, perhaps I could catch some hitherto unknown detail or physical phenomenon? My mindset was definitely more serious and reverential to the gorgeousness of the universe back then, and it’s sometimes sad to think I lost some of that  childhood determination in discovering the mysteries of the universe, which felt so close for the picking:

Vedi, in questi silenzi in cui le cose
s’abbandonano e sembrano vicine
a tradire il loro ultimo segreto,
talora ci si aspetta
di scoprire uno sbaglio di Natura,
il punto morto del mondo, l’anello che non tiene,
il filo da disbrogliare che finalmente ci metta
nel mezzo di una verità.
Lo sguardo fruga d’intorno,
la mente indaga accorda disunisce
nel profumo che dilaga
quando il giorno più languisce.
Sono i silenzi in cui si vede
in ogni ombra umana che si allontana
qualche disturbata Divinità.

One of my favorite poems is apropos. [I limoni, by Eugenio Montale; translation].

The blurriness and undeterminedness of the early observations of galaxies gave rise to the split between the idea of nebulas within the Galaxy versus “island universes”. (Read more about it here and here.)

Image credits: The black-and-white photograph is from this page; the color photograph is from APOD (Adam BlockMt. Lemmon SkyCenterU. Arizona).