Archive for the ‘Famous Photographs’ Category

I picked up these images at Wired two days ago and just could not fit in the time to put them up earlier.

There is a remarkable quote by Einstein

“Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the the universe.”

It isn’t definite to me if I liked this quotation earlier. But I am NOW wholly convinced that I love it. And this new found unequivocalness for it is due to the following:

As a kid, I used to have a large collection of encyclopedias. I remember reading about the Aral Sea in the picture atlas, and that it mentioned that there was increasing salination of the sea water and that it would disappear in some decades.

Over the years that time, we were fed with doomsday scenarios all the while. Like all the coastal cities would be soon under sea due to rising ocean levels, and that the Himalayas would soon be ice free etc etc. Over a period of time you get fed up with such idle talk and since you don’t see anyone giving convincing answers, you tend to believe that nothing like that is true. Secondly, the eternal optimist that I am, I just probably wished that what that encyclopedia said about the Aral was some “minor” problem.

I last read about the problem many years ago and after that never came across anything on it. And just a couple of days back was shocked by these images. I have only one word for them : Tragic!

The images are from 1973, 1987, 1999, 2006 and 2009. The two recent images were released by the European Space Agency, the earlier ones were taken by the United States Geological Survey.

Aral Sea - 1973

Aral Sea - 1973

Aral Sea - 1987

Aral Sea - 1987

Aral Sea - 1999

Aral Sea - 1999

Aral Sea - 2006

Aral Sea - 2006

Aral Sea - 2009

Aral Sea - 2009

[Image(s) Source : Wired Science]

The South Aral Sea, the remnant of the original lake that you can see to your left on the above image is also expected to vanish by 2020, thankfully the North Aral sea (the part on the right) has been saved due to a world bank funded dam project.

The Aral sea, once the world’s fourth largest lake at roughly around 68,000 sq kms is now just about one-tenth that size. The trouble started when it was decided by the Soviets in 1918 that the two rivers that drained into the Aral – The Amu Darya and Syr Darya would be largely diverted to the deserts to develop them into cotton growing lands. The Soviet plan worked and cotton became one of the most important exports from that area. By the 1960s massive amount of water was being diverted and the sea began to shrink steadily. And how that happened is spoken out loud by the pictures.

The death of the Aral is extremely sad. It’s death has left it’s once thriving fishing industry destroyed, the diverting of the rivers has mostly reduced the two rivers to a shadow of their former selves. The Aral served as a climate moderator in the largely arid lands there, it’s death might herald major environmental catastrophe in the region.

This is a prime example of what human stupidity could lead to and leaves me short of words to describe my anguish at the same.

It has a number of things to say:

Ignoring warnings which have clear proof is just plain stupidity. There is ample proof for example of climate change and its bad impact. For example, I have been visiting the Himalayas once every few years since 1991. And the change there is apparent, as compared to the 80s the glaciers that make up the Ganges have shrunk by several kilometers. I don’t know what the solutions are, nor am I comparing the Aral problem with it. I understand that the Aral was a different kind of a problem. Different because it was known to the Soviets that the lake would dry up from the start. Climate change can not be compared to it as we do not yet fully understand a number of things about it, so how effective the correctives would be is debatable. It would be for our good if that debate is settled soon with good and incisive scientific evidence.

It also is a comment on how totalitarian regimes can be dangerous. In such regimes, since a decision taken can not be opposed, such a decision could either lead to major dividends/progress as it would be implemented very rapidly or major catastrophe as was in the above case.  Soviet officials were aware that the Aral would sooner or later evaporate. In 1964 Aleksandr Asarin noted that :

“It was part of the five-year plans, approved by the council of ministers and the Politburo. Nobody on a lower level would dare to say a word contradicting those plans, even if it was the fate of the Aral Sea.”

Ofcourse he was right, there is rarely any way to convince or reason with or oppose supercilious totalitarian regimes even if their decisions are clearly suicidal. I am tempted to make a political comment on two present day countries (one a totalitarian state and one a liberal democracy) here, but would avoid the temptation.

Anyhow, the images above disturbed me enough to lose sleep.


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It is logical to believe that there exist millions of planets in the “vicinity” of our part of the universe alone. However, limited due to tools and the extremely vast distances to be dealt with, we have only been to locate about 300 extra-solar planets, and these have been located indirectly. That is, by observing gravitational wobbles by tracking the star over a period of time it can be known if it is tugged at by an object like a planet.

Why is it difficult to Image the actual planets, one might ask? Well the reason is simple, the distances we deal with are so huge the star simply outshines the planet, making it very difficult to image the planets moving around the star. How does one avoid this problem? The idea is very practical. A occulting bar is used to block out the brightest part of the star’s image so that the blinding light is reduced. Other more specialized techniques can improve things by reducing the light further.

Also another strategy used by professional astronomers looking into deep space for planets over the last two decades has been to focus on systems expected around young stars. The reason being that if the formation of the planetary system is recent the planets would be significantly brighter from the heat of their formation. Much like our early solar system. It would be very difficult to look into space for a planet that is nestled in a star system like that of our Sun of today. This is because the planets would be very very faint (as they would be older and hence colder) and hence very very difficult to image.

However for the first time we have ACTUALLY been able to see extra-solar planets. This is a HUGE step, culminating from years of painstaking observations and focus. These planets are gaseous and probably will have no trace of life. However, the fact that we have been able to image them has a LOT of meaning. Some astronomers have said that it might not be very fantastic to think that we might in a very short time vector be able to observe some Earth like planet that is more likely to have life (carbon based, atleast of the type we know), now this is something that one could not even THINK of some years ago. It was probably fantasy to think we could be able to image planets like our own, now suddenly it looks quite possible.

The first image below, taken by the Hubble telescope shows a ring of dust surrounding the star Fomalhaut (derived from the Arabic فم الحوت fum al-ḥawt, meaning “mouth of the whale”) which is only 25 light years away in the constellation Piscis Australis. This star can be seen with the naked eye in the night sky. The lower right inset image is a composite image from the images taken in 2004 and 2006. Paul Kalas and his team of the University of California at Berkeley found out the planet.  This planet completes orbit around its star every 872 years.

fomalhaut[Image Source: HubbleSite]

The radial streaks are scattered starlight. The planet’s temperature is 260 degrees, quite cool compared to other exoplanets. This dot is about three times the weight of Jupiter and about three times as far from the star as compared to how far Pluto is from our sun. This dusty ring around Fomalhaut is suspected to be something like the Kuiper belt of our solar system.

This star system was expected to have planets in 2005.

The following is a video on the same:

A ring of dust surrounds the star Fomalhaut. Images taken with the Hubble Space Telescope in 2004 and 2006 show that a white dot just inside the dust ring moved in the intervening two years. Researchers believe the dot is a planet that weighs no more than 3 Jupiter masses and lies about three times as far from its star as Pluto does from the Sun (Courtesy of Paul Kalas/UC Berkeley)

Yet another fantastic finding was the discovery of a planetary trio orbiting the star HR 8799 in the constellation pegasus. About 130 light years away, the planets found are from 7-10 times the size of jovian Jupiter. With the farthest of the lot sitting at a distance of 68 AU from HR 8799 (1 AU is the distance between the earth and the Sun). These planets are still glowing because of the heat resulting from contraction after their formation. Their orbit was measured by far IR techniques at the Keck and Gemini North telescopes in Hawaii.


This near-infrared composite image shows the nearby star HR 8799 (multi-coloured blob) and its three planets (red dots at upper left, upper right and just below the star). The planets are 7 to 10 times as massive as Jupiter (Image: National Research Council Canada).

Wow! I am awed once again by the ability of astronomers to find out even the most obscure of dots amongst a nasty conundrum of dots. And even more by the discovery itself. And let me not talk about the images we have above.

I have always harbored a fantasy, that is to be on the crew of humans who get to travel to such a far off land on a Super Daedalus or Super Orion type space-ship. It would take some years (space-ship time). But ofcourse when I return to Earth I would not find anybody I know. For, centuries would have passed as per Earth time by the time I get back. ;)

Onrionesque Reality Home >>

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Here is a wonderful photograph by Ansel Adams, one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century. He is my personal favorite as well. I greatly venerate Adams.

The Road Ahead

This single frame speaks volumes about the American west. Like other photographs by Adams, this one also carries a message, and talks about The Road Ahead. One can interpret it differently.

Like it can be considered as a pictorial representation of the phrase “Life Goes On”.

This can be taken as an inspirational photo as well. I for some reason just love this photo and could not resist posting it on the blog!

This wonderful photograph was obtained from the photographymuseum.com, check this website for other wonderful pieces of art!

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All Electrical Engineering students at some point have seen this image in their Image Processing textbooks.


I had always wondered who this lady was, and how did she enter these image processing texts. She did not seem to be an Engineer by any yardstick ;-) This picture has been used as a test image by most image processing students and researchers, in all sorts of image processing algorithms such as de-noising, compression etc. I was always amazed with the usage of this particular image. A friend of mine, a non-engineer was surprised to see the image in a text, and she remarked “Is this an excuse for geeks to have pictures of pretty ladies in their books? “.

I first came across this image in the textbook authored by Gonzalez and Woods. I decided to find out for myself who this was. I actually thought maybe (just maybe) it was a generated image? but then ruled that out as a possibility in view of the degree of “real-ness” of this image.

Searching for the Lena image was a bit difficult initially as i had no real key-words for it. However some months back i did discover the image with the string “Lena” below it. That was it! I Googled it and found out that that image was actually very famous, that it had a wikipedia entry, and there had been discussions on the image and its source at length. It was a Swedish model by the name of Lena Söderberg who had posed for the 1972 November Playboy edition, and the image was a cropped version of the same.

And Lena has many fans. Here is a rather funny poem on the image.

Sonnet for Lena

O dear Lena, your beauty is so vast
It is hard sometimes to describe it fast.
I thought the entire world I would impress
If only your portrait I could compress.
Alas! First when I tried to use VQ
I found that your cheeks belong to only you.
Your silky hair contains a thousand lines
Hard to match with sums of discrete cosines.
And for your lips, sensual and tactual
Thirteen Crays found not the proper fractal.
And while these setbacks are all quite severe
I might have fixed them with hacks here or there
But when filters took sparkle from your eyes
I said, “Fuck this shit. I’ll just digitize.

by Thomas C

Reading on Lena (I mean the test image) was amusing.

Jamie Hutchinson in an article in the May 2001 newsletter of the IEEE professional Communications Society writes about the pictures history.

Alexander Sawchuk estimates that it was in June or July of 1973 when he, then an assistant professor of electrical engineering at the University of Southern California Signal and Image Processing Institute (SIPI), along with a graduate student and the SIPI lab manager, was hurriedly searching the lab for a good image to scan for a colleague’s conference paper. They got tired of their stock of usual test images, dull stuff dating back to television standards work in the early 1960s. They wanted something glossy to ensure good output dynamic range, and they wanted a human face. Just then, somebody happened to walk in with a recent issue of Playboy.

The engineers tore away the top third of the centerfold so they could wrap it around the drum of their Muirhead wirephoto scanner, which they had outfitted with analog-to-digital converters (one each for the red, green, and blue channels) and a Hewlett Packard 2100 minicomputer. The Muirhead had a fixed resolution of 100 lines per inch and the engineers wanted a 512 × 512 image, so they limited the scan to the top 5.12 inches of the picture, effectively cropping it at the subject’s shoulders.

A more amazingly amusing account that even discusses the debate regarding the picture can be found on the page of DAVID C. MUNSON, JR. of the CMU here.

An excerpt from his writing.

I think it is safe to assume that the Lena image became a standard in our “industry” for two reasons. First, the image contains a nice mixture of detail, flat regions, shading, and texture that do a good job of testing various image processing algorithms. It is a good test image! Second, the Lena image is a picture of an attractive woman. It is not surprising that the (mostly male) image processing research community gravitated toward an image that they found attractive. The Woody Allen buffs among you may be interested to know that the Lena image appeared in the movie Sleeper. Tom Huang pointed this out to me. In the scene where Allen awakes in the year 2173, he is asked to identify a number of artifacts from the past, including photographs of Joseph Stalin and Charles de Gaulle, and the issue of Playboy Magazine containing Lena.

and regarding the debate he writes:

Well, quite understandably, some members of our community are unhappy with the source of the Lena image. I am sympathetic to their argument, which states that we should not use material from any publication that is seen (by some) as being degrading to women. I must tell you, though, that within any single segment of our community (e.g., men, women, feminists), there is a complete diversity of opinion on the Lena issue. You may be surprised to know that most persons who have approached me on this issue are male. On the other hand, some informal polling on my part suggests that most males are not even aware of the origin of the Lena image! I have heard feminists argue that the image should be retired. However, I just recently corresponded with a feminist who had a different point of view. She was familiar with the Lena image, but she had not imagined that there could be any controversy. When I offered an explanation of why some persons are offended by the use of the image. she responded tartly. A watered-down version of her reply is, “There isn’t much of Lena showing in the Lena image. This political correctness stuff infuriates me!”

A very amusing story, i had never imagined that that one picture in an image processing text-book would have such a big history!

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