Communicating complex and evolving astronomical data: new paper by Lisa F. Smith and colleagues


What is the best way of communicating out of scale events that happen in the space? An exploding star can be difficult to imagine. That’s why, according to Lisa F. Smith and colleagues, co-authors of the freshly published paper “Capturing the many faces of an exploded star: communicating complex and evolving astronomical data”, images play an extremely important role in familiarizing citizens with astronomy. As the authors affirm, “This study explored how different presentations of an object in deep space affect understanding, engagement, and aesthetic appreciation.”

One of the main findings of the study, carried out by Lisa F. Smith, Professor of Education at the University of Otago, New Zealand, and colleagues from the NASA’s Chandra X-ray, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and NASA’s Ames Research Center, is that “Images that look familiar (…) were rated on average as more appealing, easier to understand, and as promoting future learning. However, combining that with the finding that explanation, across all levels of self-knowledge of astronomy, benefited all participants, suggests that (…) there is scope for the use of alternative types of images, provided they are accompanied by explanations.”

The research counted with 2,502 respondents to an online survey, who were randomly assigned to one of 11 versions of Cassiopeia A, comprising 6 images and 5 videos ranging from 3 s to approximately 1 min. Participants were asked, among other things, to indicate the extent to which the label increased understanding and how well the image represented the object.

The full open access paper can be downloaded at