Brian May’s Cosmic Clouds offers a glimpse of the universe in 3D

Cosmic Clouds / J.-P. Metsävainio, David J. Eicher, Brian May

Brian May has recorded some of the most memorable songs in history, gained a PhD in astrophysics, worked on Nasa’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and campaigned for animal rights. But the Queen lead guitarist also had a lifelong passion for 3D images.
It has seen him found the London Stereoscopic Company, compile a collection of Victorian photographs – finding a lost village in the process – write a book about Queen, and revisit the moon landings, all in 3D. Now, he’s published a collection of 3D images of nebulae in outer space, something that’s never been done before.

Advertisement

It all began when May was 12. “In those days, we used to get nice toys in cereal packets,” he says. On this occasion he picked out a piece of card with two images of a hippopotamus side by side. May sent the top of the cereal packet away along with one and sixpence, about £1.50 in today’s money, to claim his 3D viewer. “I put the card in the viewer and the magic happened,” he says. “Suddenly, that hippopotamus had its mouth open and I could almost fall in it. It was like I could step into the page.”
The latest book in May’s stereoscopic series takes readers much further away, to the places where stars are born and die. Cosmic Clouds 3D shows pictures of nebulae, the enormous clouds of dust and gas floating in space, in a completely new way.
Stereoscopic photography works by mimicking the way we view the world. When we look at an object each of our eyes sees a slightly different perspective. It’s this difference that allows our brain to deduce how far away different parts of that object are, building a three-dimensional picture.

Cosmic Clouds / J.-P. Metsävainio, David J. Eicher, Brian May

Advertisement

To create a stereo photograph usually requires taking two images of the same scene or object from two slightly different places. Viewing the two at the same time, our brain merges the information into one 3D image which appears to pop out from the page. This is usually done with a 3D viewer, but some people can trick their brain into seeing the merged image without a viewer, in a technique called free-viewing.
When it comes to cosmic clouds, however, it’s not that simple. You can’t take two pictures of a nebula at once from slightly different angles – we only have one vantage point. Creating 3D images of distant objects required a new vantage point.
The stereoscopic images in the book were all taken by J-P Metsävainio, a Finnish astrophotographer who invented his own way to create stereoscopic space images. Mestävainio lives near the Arctic Circle, a great place for an astrophotographer for the six months of the year when it’s almost completely dark.
During the summer months Mestävainio works on his imaging processing techniques. And it was during this down time that he came up with his way of making stereoscopic images. Mestävainio takes one photo of the cluster, galaxy or nebula and then, using all available data about the distances to each star or cloud in the image, he generates a second picture to view alongside it.

Advertisement

The results are impressive. The 3D images tell the viewer more about the nebulae’s shape and structure than a normal photograph could. Instead of the circular cloud you might expect some of them appear more like tunnel shapes, while others are like long, tangled strands.

Cosmic Clouds / J.-P. Metsävainio, David J. Eicher, Brian May

In a field like astrophysics, where the subjects are so distant and often difficult to comprehend, a tool like this is extremely valuable. “I’m privileged to work with some of the world’s greatest astrophysicists and scientists working in sending unmanned missions to the solar system,” says May. When he shows them these 3D images, “they all find it contributes to the way they can understand [the nebulae] instinctively, and also to the way that they can communicate them to the public.”
It’s not just images of nebulae. A beautiful stereoscopic picture of the Andromeda galaxy brings its spiral shape to life and, when witnessed in three dimensions, the Pleiades star cluster becomes much more than a sprinkling of stars.
Throughout the book David Eicher, editor of US-based Astronomy magazine, tells the story of the Universe from the life cycle of stars to the future of our sun. At the end, Eicher also offers tips for anyone wanting to see these nebulae for themselves, about which telescopes to start with.
Eicher worked with May on their previous book Mission Moon 3D, published in 2018, which brought old photographs of the lunar missions to life. But to put together a book about more distant phenomenon, like cosmic clouds, they needed someone like Mestävainio to produce the stereoscopic pictures. May approached Mestävainio after admiring his astrophotography online, and he was thrilled to be involved.
In the end, Mestävainio created a completely new set of photographs for the book. “I always find the greatest things happen when you put great people together,” says May, “it’s like a kind of cosmic explosion in itself.”
Brian May was one of the speakers at WIRED Live – the inspirational festival bringing the WIRED brand to life. Find out more about future WIRED Events here
More great stories from WIRED
💡 2020 has been bleak but these 32 innovators are building a better future for us all
🎅 How Santas are adjusting to Christmas online

Advertisement

👓 It’s been a rocky period for Magic Leap. Now the company is trying to reinvent itself, and augmented reality
🔊 Listen to The WIRED Podcast, the week in science, technology and culture, delivered every Friday
👉 Follow WIRED on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn

Like this article?

Share on facebook
Share on Facebook
Share on twitter
Share on Twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on Linkdin
Share on pinterest
Share on Pinterest

Leave a comment

Why You Need A Website

Now