Adam Block, astrophotographer and astronomy educator with the University of Arizona's Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter, has been selected to receive the Advanced Imaging Conference Hubble Award to honor his work in “bringing the cosmos to the people.” Block received the award at the annual Advanced Imaging Conference held Oct. 26-28 in San Jose, Calif.
Block joined the UA Steward Observatory in 2007 to build new public astronomy programs at the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter, a one-of-a-kind science center run by department of astronomy atop 9,157-foot Mount Lemmon in the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson.
Today, Block shares stunning views of objects in the universe with school children, students and the general public during the SkyCenter’s public viewing programs and his expertise during special workshops for astrophotography enthusiasts.
NASA regularly features his images on its “Astronomy Picture of the Day” website, such as this image of Reflection Nebula vdB1. Hundreds of Block’s photos have appeared in magazines such as National Geographic, Scientific American, Astronomy, Sky & Telescope, Arizona Highways, Coelum, Astronomie and The Practical Astronomer. Space.com has featured a score of his images as its image of the day.
“Adam’s pictures draw people in and facilitate their thinking about science,” said Alan Strauss, director of the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter. “One of the things that distinguishes our outreach efforts from similar public programs is that Adam’s photographs are used so widely. The images are beautiful, and they awaken a curiosity and an appreciation of science in general, and astronomy specifically."
“If you show a group of seventh-graders a scientific discovery image of a comet – a tiny moving speck among many other specks – their reaction would be, ‘OK, so what am I looking at here?’ But if you show them a color image that Adam took of that same comet, with the nucleus clearly visible, and perhaps shells of glowing gas and dust surrounding the nucleus or a blue, glowing tail, they instantly are drawn in and begin to wonder and ask questions about what they see. That’s why Adam received this award. His images remind people that science matters.”
Block, who grew up fascinated with astronomy and all things in the sky, said the main motivation behind his photography is sharing what he sees with others.
“Growing up, I would set up my telescope in our driveway and see all these wonderful things, but I wanted to turn around and show someone else,” Block said. “I wanted to say, 'Hey check this out; this is really fascinating; this is awesome.' I didn't really have that opportunity, and I wanted to do that.”
At age 13, when his parents gave him a camera, “the first thing I did was attach it to a telescope,” Block said. “I never took pictures of people with it.”
“I can only do public outreach for as far as my voice will carry,” he said. “Images go much farther; they can be published elsewhere, in fact around the world. And nowadays, it reaches even further because of my work at the SkyCenter. For me, making these pictures is the ultimate way of sharing.”
After high school, Block was drawn to Arizona and the UA to study astronomy and physics. As a freshman, he volunteered at Flandrau Planetarium and ran Flandrau's 16-inch telescope for the public two nights a week. He became lead telescope operator for Steward Observatory's 21-inch campus telescope. He was an active president and vice-president of the UA Astronomy Club and installed a 16-inch Newtonian telescope for the club in the dome on Tumamoc Hill. The UA astronomy department gave him its undergraduate teaching award.
After his graduation in 1996, Block was lead observer for all nighttime astronomy public programs at Kitt Peak National Observatory from November 1996 to September 2005. He honed his imaging and image-processing skills during his years at Kitt Peak, assisting visitors in taking more than 1,500 deep-sky images and taking many more magnificent color deep-sky images of his own.
Dozens of Block's images have been published in such books as "A Year in the Life of the Universe," "Cosmic Butterflies," "Beyond Earth," "Encyclopedia of Amateur Astronomy," "The Caldwell Objects" and "Night Wonders."
According to Block, astrophotography is an art as much as a science.
“Different people have their techniques and their styles, and their kind of expression,” he said. “With the software you use to process the data, especially when it comes to how to present that information, you have choices. There isn’t a single route that leads to a final result.”
“There is more information in a picture than you can display on a computer monitor at any one time, so when you’re processing those images, you have a choice of how to do it, and there are techniques for being able to display what you see in a way that is attractive and captivating.”
Block explained that while the individual steps involved in processing an astronomical image aren’t necessarily complicated, the skill lies in making good choices and appreciating techniques that lead to particular results.
“I try to go for a more naturalistic style,” he said. “When you look at one of my images, I hope you won’t be able to tell the 10 hours of processing that went into it. If you can tell what I did to render the picture, I probably didn’t do a very good job.”
Asked about any favorite objects he likes to image, Block said: “Anything I haven’t had a chance to work on before. One of the nice things we have been able to do at the SkyCenter is to take pictures of something of which there may not be a visually appealing, high-resolution, color image anywhere in the literature, books, magazines or on the Internet. Not many people may have seen those aspects of such an object – whatever it may be – before. To me, that is a form of discovery, and that is a lot of fun.”
Block not only shares his images, but also his techniques and experience with astrophotographers through workshops at the SkyCenter and through tutorials available on DVD.
“Composition, technique, art – those all go together,” Block said, and pointed to the example of Bob Ross, host of the popular TV show, “The Joy of Painting.”
“Ross painted things like ‘happy little trees,’ and he was well-known for always saying positive things and how mistakes are OK,” Block said. “I’m trying to be the Bob Ross of astrophotography.”