Alan Taylor runs The Atlantic’s In Focus photography blog and earlier created Boston.com’s award-winning Big Picture, which became one of the most popular blogs in North America. Each December for the past four years, to coincide with the pre-Christmas weeks of Advent, he has created a calendar of photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope that displays the vastness and beauty of the heavens. Taylor, a former Microsoft developer and onetime Alaska wildlife tour operator, answered a few questions of ours this week.
Q. What prompted you to do the Advent calendar in the first place? What led you to the space-religion connection?
A. When I was growing up, we always had a fun Advent calendar in the house at Christmas. Usually something with chocolate, or some other prize. I loved the whole process, and how it coincided with the anticipation of Christmas Day. To be honest it was very much a secular sort of experience for me – a family tradition, like a tree, a wreath, or those candle-powered spinning chimes. When I was brainstorming for fun things to do with my old site, Big Picture, it just popped in my head one day - why don’t I do an Advent calendar of some kind? Something with spectacular photos — ooh, the Hubble photos, yes, that would be great. It was only after I started assembling it that the wider significance of ’beauty in the heavens’ during the Christmas season occurred to me, but that made it sweeter.
Q. You do a lot of photographs in general from NASA and of space. Does that bring out a spiritual side in you?
I’ve been utterly fascinated with astronomy since I was very little, so it comes naturally. I often feel that the (public domain) imagery from NASA really doesn’t get the exposure that it warrants. I’m not strictly what you would call a spiritual person, but I have had a couple of experiences in my life that I would call spiritual, which I believe helps me in my attempts to understand a variety of human experiences. In my view, the heart of much of that is a deep sense of awe, an experience where one feels that one is only glimpsing a tiny portion of something truly magnificent and powerful — and that somehow we are all connected to it. You could use the same description to fit Hubble images – the incomprehensible beauty, power, scale and mystery — and we are all connected to it, within sight of it, part of it all. How can you look at these photos and not feel that sense of wonder and awe.
Q. What has been the response from your many commenters worldwide. Are there one or two comments that stand out?
Once or twice I’ve heard from people that are angry that I’m mixing the two streams of science and religion, but mostly the response is what I hoped for – people taking a moment to view the images, read the descriptions, be amazed, and anticipate tomorrow’s image. I can’t think of any standout comments at the moment, but a pretty common one is simply: “Brilliant.”
Q. If you could choose a half-dozen photographs from your years doing this, which would they be and why?
A.. I’ll pick three:
Nearly 10,000 galaxies are seen in this composite image made with the Hubble Space Telescope and released by NASA on Tuesday, March 9, 2004. This is the deepest look, named the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, into the visible universe ever; revealing a wide range of galaxies in various shapes, sizes and ages. (AP Photo/ NASA/ESA)
1. Hubble Ultra-deep field. A massive image made up of multicolored dots, that, on closer examination are galaxy-shaped… and then you realize the image is filled with galaxies, each containing billions of stars, and this is just a tiny patch of sky — the tip of a ball-point pen held at arm’s length would cover these up. Extrapolating out, this image gives us the greatest appreciation of how unbelievably vast our visible universe is — and that’s just what we are physically capable of seeing (within 13 billion light years)
2. Light echoes in V838 Monocerotis, a massive stellar explosion blasted out high-energy particles in a sphere, which encountered gaseous structures, lighting it all up like a spherical set of ripples 13 light-years wide (View the explosion series here
.) A series of photos was taken over several years, and when animated, one can see the dynamic nature of the universe. Because the structures we can see are often so huge and distant, it’s rare to see such motion — and to see it behave ‘’just like home.’’,in predictable natural ways, makes even more of a connection.
This photo supplied by NASA and the European Space Agency Tuesday, April 3, 2007, is a Hubble Space Telescope view of the barred spiral galaxy NGC 1672, showing up clusters of hot young blue stars along its spiral arms, and clouds of hydrogen gas glowing in red.
3. Spiral galaxies.You can get such a close-up of our galactic neighbor — imagine if it were 50 times closer, loomed larger than the full moon in our skies, how that would look. It’s also so close and yet so far. 2.5 million light-years away.
Q. You often reflect religious themes in your blog posts, including Hajj and Eid and Holy Week. How do you see religion among the big stories that affect the world each year?
A. In my view, religion can mean so many different things, from dogma and doctrine that drive politics and conflict, to comfort, community, charity, and in a wider sense, a way of seeing our world and our places in it. We are all here on this planet with the same set of questions: Why are we here? What is our purpose? What is this place? What comes after this life?
Each of us try to answer in our own ways, independently, or with others. Really understanding something doesn’t just mean comprehension, it requires some empathy as well. Still photographs transcend a number of boundaries, and let viewers get right up close, intimate, with others whose practices or beliefs might differ radically, but are simply human beings with hopes, dreams, and questions as well.
Too often, news stories involving religion paint stark contrasts, often playing into the hands of those who would use these divisions to fire up baser tribal responses and spread conflict. It’s harder to paint the middle ground, certainly less exciting. When I can present a portrait of someone who lives in a land and culture far removed from the viewer, and they can look in the eyes of the person in that photo, and see a spark of familiarity, a recognition of our wider human connection, that just means so much.
David Beard is the Washington Post’s editor for sitewide engagement and former editor of Boston.com, where he first met Alan Taylor.