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The Universe

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The startling majesty – and deceptive complexity – of Michael Benson’s space art can be traced back through a process he dubs “true color.” A multimedia artist, Benson is a man utterly fascinated with outer space (he points to 2001: A Space Odyssey as an inspiration for his interstellar works — works that so impressed 2001 author Arthur C. Clarke that the sci-fi titan agreed to write the foreword to one of Benson’s books), and he has fixed his talents on creating visions that break free of the confines of Earth, enabling viewers to behold the unseen wonders of the universe.

To encounter a Benson landscape is to be in awe of not only how he sees the universe, but also the ways in which he composes the never-ending celestial ballet. From the spidery volcanic fractures that scar the surface of Venus to the time-lapse flight path of a stray asteroid, the dizzying close-ups of the swirling “red spot” of Jupiter, the x-ray-filtered view of the sun’s surface and the rippling red dunes of Mars, Benson is a visual stylist with a gift for framing and focus. Apart from cutting-edge high-definition renderings of our solar system’s most familiar objects, he also routinely converts extra-terrestrial terrain into thrilling, abstract landscapes that seem positioned somewhere between the scientific and the avant-garde.

The cover of Planetfall: New Solar System Visions

The cover of Planetfall: New Solar System Visions

Some of his greatest achievements skew towards the hyper realistic; I have been following Benson’s work for years and still the image I remember most is a massive, intricately-detailed view of the surface of Io, one of Jupiter’s moons (slide 13 in the gallery above). Looming large in a print that renders the Io surface in a yellow-brownish hue, delineating the moon’s different terrains, Benson’s color scheme accentuates the dark volcanic calderas that dot the satellite’s surface. The final result is sharp, meticulous and magnificent. At first glimpse it’s a simple planetary object, but the closer your eye scans the terrain, the more you realize that Benson has somehow taken this imagery captured 400 million miles away and given us a front-row seat to consider the turbulent topography of this alien orb. Benson’s visions demand more than a single look; the longer one spends with his vast landscapes, considering the scale and scope, the more they facilitate a state of meditation.

Behind every one of these images, however, lies an intricate and involved photo editing process (watch the video of Benson’s method above). Benson typically begins each work by filtering through hundreds or thousands of raw images from space, made available to the public by NASA and the European Space Agency – photographs that have been taken by unmanned space probes flying throughout the solar system, rovers on Mars or humans aboard the International Space Station. Many of these photos come back to Earth as black and white composites, or as images created with only a few active color filters. Benson then sorts through the images in a hunt for something surprising, revealing or noteworthy. Once he’s found a subject of interest, he starts stitching together individual snapshots to create larger landscapes, and filtering these landscapes through his own color corrections to create a spectrum that approximates how these interstellar vistas would appear to the human eye.

In his latest published photo collection Planetfall: New Solar System Visions, now available from Abrams, Benson details the fine points of his processing techniques:

“The process of creating full-color images from black-and-white raw frames—and mosaic composites in which many such images are stitched together—can be quite complicated,” Benson writes. “In order for a full-color image to be created, the spacecraft needs to have taken at minimum two, but preferably three, individual photographs of a given subject, with each exposed through a different filter… ideally, those filters are red, green, and blue, in which case a composite color image can usually be created without too much trouble. But in practice, such spacecraft as the Cassini Orbiter or the Mars Exploration Rovers … have many different filters, which they use to record wavelengths of light well outside of the relatively narrow red, green and blue (RGB) zone of the electromagnetic spectrum that human eyes can see.”

Benson goes on to explain that he will often start working with images that are missing an essential filter — that ultraviolet and infrared filters have been used instead of color filters, meaning the composite image is lacking necessary information.

It is here where Benson has carved out an area of expertise, filling in that missing image information to add shape, scale and color to the planetary bodies he hopes to explore. The resulting visuals, as you can see above, are pristine and powerful glimpses of the furthest reaches of our solar system (and, in some of Benson’s other works, the very edges of the universe). With the landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars in August, and its subsequent photographs of what appears to be Martian riverbeds, the world was once again reminded of the power of a single image transmitted back to Earth across millions of miles of open space. It’s a dizzying thing, to behold an alien world, and scanning through the portfolio of Michael Benson — a true “space odyssey” — is to experience this rush of discovery again and again.

Michael Benson’s new book Planetfall: New Solar System Visions, is now available from Abrams. Also featured above are images from Beyond: Visions of the Interplanetary Probes (Abrams, 2008). Images from Planetfall will be on display at New York’s Hasted Kraeutler Gallery in December 2012. To see more of Benson’s work, visit his web site.

Steven James Snyder is an Assistant Managing Editor at TIME.com.

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"Neil deGrasse Tyson - We Stopped Dreaming" is the first episode in a new YouTube series which stresses the importance of advancing the space frontier. The episode highlights reasons the USA first went to the moon and critisises the small funding NASA now receives - 4/10ths of one penny on every tax dollar. The main question asked is - how different would our knowledge of the universe be if that funding was raised to one penny out of every tax dollar, hence the hashtag #Penny4NASA. Watch below.

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My foreign policy is always war.
Three wise men once said, “Intergalactic, planetary. Planetary, intergalactic.” I think we all take solace from those words at some points in our life. For are we not all made of star stuff? Solar 2 is built on this species of Saganian wisdom. Coupled with some delightful planetary physics and a dash of good humour, it’s probably the best time you can have alone with a heavenly body. Um. That’s not what I mean. Um. Um.

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50 Quotes of Albert Einstein:

  1. “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.”
  2.  “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
  3. “Gravitation is not responsible for people falling in love.”
  4. “The hardest thing in the world to understand is the income tax.”
  5. “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”
  6. “The only real valuable thing is intuition.”
  7. “A person starts to live when he can live outside himself.”
  8. “Weakness of attitude becomes weakness of character.”
  9. “I never think of the future. It comes soon enough.”
  10. “The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility.”
  11. “Sometimes one pays most for the things one gets for nothing.”
  12. “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”
  13. “Great spirits have often encountered violent opposition from weak minds.”
  14. “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
  15. “Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.”
  16. “Science is a wonderful thing if one does not have to earn one’s living at it.”
  17. “The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.”
  18. “The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.”
  19. “The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking.”
  20. “Technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal.”
  21. “Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding.”
  22. “The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.”
  23. “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
  24. “Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school.”
  25. “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”
  26. “Do not worry about your difficulties in Mathematics. I can assure you mine are still greater.”
  27. “Equations are more important to me, because politics is for the present, but an equation is something for eternity.”
  28. “If A is a success in life, then A equals x plus y plus z. Work is x; y is play; and z is keeping your mouth shut.”
  29. “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the the universe.”
  30. “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”
  31. “Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.”
  32. “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”
  33. “In order to form an immaculate member of a flock of sheep one must, above all, be a sheep.”
  34. “The fear of death is the most unjustified of all fears, for there’s no risk of accident for someone who’s dead.”
  35. “Too many of us look upon Americans as dollar chasers. This is a cruel libel, even if it is reiterated thoughtlessly by the Americans themselves.”
  36. “Heroism on command, senseless violence, and all the loathsome nonsense that goes by the name of patriotism — how passionately I hate them!”
  37. “No, this trick won’t work…How on earth are you ever going to explain in terms of chemistry and physics so important a biological phenomenon as first love?”
  38. “My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind.”
  39. “Yes, we have to divide up our time like that, between our politics and our equations. But to me our equations are far more important, for politics are only a matter of present concern. A mathematical equation stands forever.”
  40. “The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking…the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.”
  41. “Great spirits have always found violent opposition from mediocrities. The latter cannot understand it when a man does not thoughtlessly submit to hereditary prejudices but honestly and courageously uses his intelligence.”
  42. “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”
  43. “Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
  44. “You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat.”
  45. “One had to cram all this stuff into one’s mind for the examinations, whether one liked it or not. This coercion had such a deterring effect on me that, after I had passed the final examination, I found the consideration of any scientific problems distasteful to me for an entire year.”
  46. “…one of the strongest motives that lead men to art and science is escape from everyday life with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness, from the fetters of one’s own ever-shifting desires. A finely tempered nature longs to escape from the personal life into the world of objective perception and thought.”
  47. “He who joyfully marches to music rank and file, has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would surely suffice. This disgrace to civilization should be done away with at once. Heroism at command, how violently I hate all this, how despicable and ignoble war is; I would rather be torn to shreds than be a part of so base an action. It is my conviction that killing under the cloak of war is nothing but an act of murder.”
  48. “A human being is a part of a whole, called by us ‘universe’, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest… a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
  49. “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

Compiled by: Kevin Harris 1995

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