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Science & Space

A book as big as the universe

Travel the cosmos in only 365 days

By Richard Stenger

Travel the cosmos in only 365 days

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(CNN) -- A glowing cloud resembling a spider, men riding a sports utility vehicle 250,000 miles from the nearest gas station and a fighter jet bursting from what looks like an egg are a few of hundreds of eye-popping pictures in a new book that showcases the best snapshots in the galaxy and beyond.

Robert Nemiroff and Jerry Bonnell, authors of The Universe: 365 Days, are self-professed mild and lazy guys, but they have nonetheless created perhaps the largest and most celebrated collection of space images on the Internet.

The book culls the best of the best from their Astronomy Picture of the Day Web site, a constant stream of pictures from Earth and space that draws more than one million hits each week. The astronomers recently took a break from picking pictures for APOD, which mirror sites translate into ten languages, to talk to about their book.

CNN: Nebula pictures. Many space fans just adore them. And there are quite a few beauts in the book. Why the fascination with nebulae? Are they the orchids of the space picture world?

NEMIROFF: Some nearby nebulas can just be resolved into so much detail. Many nebulas happen to be places where luminous gas, dark dust, reflecting dust, and young stars all interact, which can lead to tremendously intricate complexity and texture.

CNN: Many images are false-color images. Some critics think that false-color images detract from the science, that they are merely done to increase the beauty value. Do you disagree? Why or why not?

NEMIROFF: All perceived color is false color. Eyes, computer monitors, digital cameras, film -- they are all different from each other and even different from other eyes, monitors, etc.

Things only begin to appear the same when standardized filters are used, and that's when science begins. Additionally, assigning red, green and blue as digitized color to, for example, radio, optical, and ultraviolet light may create something no human eye would see, but might highlight something very interesting scientifically. Therefore, the "representative color" that is used for many pictures adds to, not detracts from, the science, in my opinion. Also, how cool is it to see beyond the normal color range for humans!

CNN: How do you find your pictures? Are there rituals you go through? Do you search the Web? Visit a regular list of Web sites, or is your e-mail brimming with images from APOD wannabes each day?

BONNELL: Yes to all of those. We also get a tremendous number of excellent images submitted for consideration. The submissions by "amateurs" are often equally if not more impressive than the major observatory releases. I often regret that I actually have to pick only one image for a given day and that there are only 365 days in the year.

CNN: How do you winnow the candidates down to one each day?

NEMIROFF: If either the mature scientist or immature teenager inside me says "cool," I'll try to APOD it. Usually I'll recognize an APODable picture in the first few seconds. And the best APODs made it into our new book!

CNN: How do you two divide up responsibilities?

NEMIROFF: Usually I do Sunday through Tuesday, and Jerry does Thursday through Saturday. The person with the least convincing sob story about how unbelievably busy they are gets to do Wednesday.

BONNELL: Sob ...

CNN: Have you ever chosen purported UFO pictures or other controversial pictures?

BONNELL: If images of the "face on Mars" or Apollo astronauts walking around the on moon are considered controversial, then I guess these would count as part of the few. Those pictures tend to generate some e-mail from conspiracy types. Of course, as a skeptic, I've always thought that the face on Mars is really a butte.

CNN: More than 1 million hits a week. Can you elaborate on that?

NEMIROFF: Our largest demographic is the intelligent professional -- some smarty with a desk job who checks us out as part of their daily or weekly routine. APOD is also popular with astronomy instructors and students who want to find a quick picture of, say, Jupiter, and want to understand what they are seeing. We get a surprising amount of e-mail from parents and grandparents who take discussing APOD as a family activity that can involve everyone.

CNN: Did you ever think APOD would be this popular? Why do you think it is?

BONNELL: I'm glad that it's popular, but I'm not sure I completely understand how it got that way. I know APOD is entertaining, though, because it entertains my kids. On one occasion my 14-year-old actually said he was impressed by it, so I consider that a major victory. Putting together APODs is a little like being a kid again and reminds me very much of the things that inspired my own early interests and curiosity.

CNN: Where did you meet?

BONNELL: We met, and shared an office, at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. I'm still at Goddard, but Bob has moved on to Michigan Tech. University. However, he remains my tallest former office mate and collaborator by about 2 inches.

CNN: How can we narrow down the images to just a handful for an image gallery with this interview? It seems impossible!

BONNELL: I'm happy to say that picking out a spectacular image is not at all a problem. Whenever I'm asked what my favorite image is from the book, I just open a copy and start to flip through it until one catches my eye. I do have trouble stopping, though.

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