Interstellar Aesthetics: Dario Robleto, Elizabeth Kessler and Shane Larson in Conversation [Video]

The breathtaking images produced by the Hubble and James Webb space telescopes are no ordinary snapshots. To produce these sublime cosmic vistas, astronomers filter raw data into colors and configurations that guide the viewer’s understanding, making creative decisions in the service of scientific communication. In this dialogue on “interstellar aesthetics,” artist Dario Robleto was joined by  Elizabeth Kessler, author of Picturing the Cosmos, and Shane Larson, Northwestern Research Professor of Physics and Astronomy and Associate Director, Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics (CIERA), to consider how astronomers and artists translate data into images, and how these translations shape the meaning of the cosmos in the public imagination.

Presented in partnership with Northwestern’s Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics

Watch the Discussion

There is, I think, a question that, as much as I love science, that no amount of scientific objectivity can ever just cleanly disentangle from our complex lives. We are subjective beings that experience loneliness and loss, and we want to know: Will it endure or will it end?

And it is what we imagine is held in each other’s hearts and in the cosmos above us, that we have turned to for answers, even as we brace ourselves that an answer may never come.

One of the questions of the show and where I start to actually build my interstellar aesthetics is this: How can the history of recording and understanding our hearts, both scientifically and poetically, better position us to record and understand the cosmos?

For when a physician takes the pulse of another or a lover asks for entry into a partner’s heart, the assumed impermeable sphere of self dissolves. Both acts really are a search for connection with another being past the limitations of our given senses. And both acts are, I think, an empathetic search for life and how we want to live those lives together.

-Dario Robleto

About the Speakers

Dario Robleto was born in San Antonio, Texas in 1972 and received his BFA from the University of Texas at San Antonio in 1997. He lives and works in Houston, TX. The artist has had numerous solo exhibitions since 1997, most recently at the Spencer Museum of Art, Lawrence, KS (2021); the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University (2019); the McNay Museum, San Antonio, TX (2018); Menil Collection, Houston, TX (2014); the Baltimore Museum of Art (2014); the New Orleans Museum of Art (2012); and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver (2011). His work has been profiled in numerous publications and media including Radiolab, Krista Tippet’s On Being, and the New York Times. In 2008 a 10-year survey exhibition, Alloy of Love, was organized by the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York. Accompanied by a major monograph, Alloy of Love traveled to the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, Washington. [Full Bio]

Elizabeth A. Kessler’s scholarship focuses on 20th and 21st century American visual culture, in particular the place of aesthetics, images, and media in astronomy. She earned a Ph.D from the University of Chicago, and she has been awarded the SHOT-NASA History of Space Technology Fellowship, as well as fellowships from Stanford University and the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum. Her book, Picturing the Cosmos: Hubble Space Telescope Images and the Astronomical Sublime, on the aesthetics of deep space images, was published in 2012 by University of Minnesota Press. Currently, she is Advanced Lecturer in American Studies at Stanford University. 

Shane Larson is a research professor of physics at Northwestern University, where he is the Associate Director of CIERA (Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics). He works in the field of gravitational wave astrophysics, specializing in studies of compact stars, binaries, and the galaxy with both the ground-based LIGO project, and future space-based observatory LISA. He grew up in Eastern Oregon, and was formerly a tenured associate professor of physics at Utah State University. He is an award winning teacher, and a Fellow of the American Physical Society. He contributes regularly to a public science blog at, and tweets with the handle @sciencejedi.

Images from the Evening

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